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War on Football? Battle Over Ban on Texas Cheerleaders' Bible Banners Heats Up


"Students have the right to take part in school activities without being pressured to participate in religious exercises."

The battle over Christian cheerleaders' right to display Bible verses during football games is nowhere near over. For the past year, atheist and civil rights groups have challenged the presence of faith-based messages during public school sports events -- and they are now preparing to intensify the battle.

TheBlaze first reported on the contentious situation last year when the Kountze Independent School District in Kountze, Texas, prohibited run-through banners that contained religious messages — an act that set off a firestorm of controversy. Now, church-state separatist groups are stepping up to support the school district in an appeal following a series of victories for the Christian teens.

In this Sept. 19, 2012 file photo, Kountze High School cheerleaders and other children work on a large banner in Kountze, Texas. A judge on Wednesday, May 9, 2013 ruled that cheerleaders at the high school can display banners emblazoned with Bible verses at football games. The dispute began during the last football season when the district barred cheerleaders from using run-through banners that displayed religious messages, such as "If God is for us, who can be against us." (AP)

The trouble started after cheerleaders in the city of Kountze came up with the idea to add Bible verses to banners after attending a cheer camp. The words of encouragement were intended to inspire the football team, but following an anonymous complaint, the district’s superintendent Kevin Weldon banned any and all religious-themed designs, KMSS-TV reported.

“Coaches preach devotionals before games. We wanted to show our support for our boys,” Meagan Tantillo, the young woman who came up with the initial idea to use Christian-based signage, said at the time.

“It is not a personal opinion of mine,” Weldon explained in an interview with KVUE. “My personal convictions are that I am a Christian as well. But I’m also a state employee and Kountze ISD representative.  And I was advised that that such a practice (religious signs) would be in direct violation of United State Supreme Court decisions.”

The superintendent was tight-lipped about who made the complaint that led to the ban on Christian run-through banners, but he said he was reluctant to comply. Later, multiple news outlets reported that it was the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist activist nonprofit, that initially sent a complaint letter to the district, dismissing the banners as "inappropriate and unconstitutional."

Community reaction and legal action, however, forced the district's hand away from this policy. Just a few days after news about the ban broke, the Christian teenagers took legal action and were granted a temporary restraining order allowing them to continue displaying Christian messages at football games.

In October 2012, state District Judge Steven Thomas issued a temporary restraining order allowing the cheerleaders to continue displaying Bible banners. In May, the judge found that the cheerleaders' banners are constitutionally permissible and that no law "prohibits cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events."

The First Amendment's establishment clause, the judge ruled, was not violated by the presence of the signs. That said, the judge also ruled that the district is not required to permit the verses on student signs. Now, in an appeal against the first ruling, civil rights groups are siding with the district in the Court of Appeals for the Ninth District in Beaumont.

In a statement Friday, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a church-state separatist group, expressed its staunch opposition to allowing the students to display Christian messages during sporting events.

"Students have the right to take part in school activities without being pressured to participate in religious exercises," said Gregory Lipper, the organization's senior litigation counsel. “And the school has an obligation to protect the religious freedom of all of its students – not just those in the majority."

A friend of the court brief written by the American Civil Liberties Union that was filed Thursday, focused not on the right of the cheerleaders, but on their fellow peers who may not wish to be inundated with faith-based messaging. Other groups involved with and signing on the document were Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Anti-Defamation League, the Interfaith Alliance Foundation, the Hindu American Foundation and the Sikh Coalition, among others.

Kountze High School cheerleader Grace Walton works on her sign next to a finished one Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012 in Kountze, Texas. The small Hardin County community is rallying behind the high school's cheerleaders after the squad members were told they could not use scripture verses on their signs at the football games. (AP)

In it, supporters of the counter-measure implored the school district to take action to protect non-believing students against these messages. No coercion at school-sponsored events should be permitted, they argued.

"Students have the right to take part in school activities without being pressured to participate in religious exercises," Lipper said. "And the school has an obligation to protect the religious freedom of all of its students -- not just those in the majority."

With the ACLU getting involved on behalf of the school district, the debate is certainly intensifying. Currently, banners are allowed, but the result of the ongoing legal battle could, once again, change that.



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