Kountze ISD was reprimanded by Freedom For Religion Foundation after cheerleaders were painting football banners with Biblical verses. The school district banned the banners and now a legal battle has ensued. -Photo by Daniel Elizondo
A legal battle has ensued in Kountze after a dispute over cheerleaders painting religious verses on football banners for display at varsity games.
A citizen of the Kountze ISD reported the act of the cheerleaders to a national organization called the Freedom From Religion Foundation late at the end of the week of Sept. 14.
Upon receiving the information, the foundation emailed Kountze ISD warning them that they had violated The Constitution.
Kountze ISD Superintendent Kevin Weldon confided in the school’s attorney and the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), who recommended banning the banners to be displayed any further, which then spurred an outcry by the cheerleaders, parents and supporters.
“I commend the kids for what they believe,” said Weldon. “This is not a personal opinion of mine. We had to seek legal council because of the recommendations of TASB.”
The Freedom From Religion staff attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote a letter to Kountze ISD stating:
"It is our information and understanding that Kountze High School cheerleaders regularly display religious banners that the football team runs through before athletic competitions. We understand that each week a different Bible verse is displayed for all to observe. Enclosed please find photocopies of recent banners containing Bible verses. You must take immediate action to stop these religious banners from being part of school-sponsored events. It is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor or lead religious messages at school athletic events."
Since the ban, the parents of the cheerleaders organized a group to hire an attorney and file a lawsuit against the school district for violating their rights.
Honorable Judge Steve Thomas and the 356th Judicial Court of Hardin County have granted a temporary restraining order (TRO) against Kountze ISD and Superintendent Weldon on Sept. 20. The order went into effect at 5 p.m. the same day and will remain in effect until October 4, when a hearing will take place before a judge.
The October 4 hearing will determine if a temporary injunction is needed until a hearing of merits can be scheduled to determine if any of the students' constitutional rights have been infringed upon.
The TRO, filed by Beaumont attorney David Starnes, along with parents of several of the cheerleaders, states that the restraining defendants, KISD and Weldon, along with any other person(s) with knowledge of the Order shall cease and desist from preventing the cheerleaders of KISD from displaying banners on run throughs at sporting events and/or censoring the sentiments expressed thereon.
The sentiments expressed in the banners are biblical in nature and have created a firestorm of controversy for the small school and community.
Attorney David Starnes, who will be lead counsel on the case, will partner with attorneys from the Liberty Institute, a nationwide group with a base in Plano, that is known for preserving freedom of religion in public schools, to prepare their case.
According to Starnes, the KISD cheerleaders were looking for a way to positively inspire both teams instead of preparing banners that say "Kill the Eagles" or similar. The banners were prepared off of school property and outside of school hours and were not sponsored by any school employee.
"These girls are mature and inspiring and I believe that they should be able to proceed with this cause. It is their right", Starnes stated.
Starnes will be assisted by the Liberty Institute attorneys, who will serve as his co-counsel. Starnes himself is known to have tried cases of similar nature in the past.
Tanner Hunt will be representing KISD and Superintendent Weldon in defense of the TRO and possible injunction. While both Hunt and Weldon have stated that they have no personal problem with what the cheerleaders are doing, they simply cannot allow it due to laws that were set forth by federal entities.
Weldon and Hunt were contacted by the Freedom From Religion foundation, out of Madison,Wisconsin and were advised that a "concerned district citizen" had contacted the group and was upset that the banners were being displayed.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a group that works to protect the constitutional principle of the separation of state and church.
"We all agree that this is a nice thing that the cheerleaders exhibiting their faith this way, but it is not up to us. We have to abide by the laws that have been set forth in front of us. This is not a close call by far and will be a white horse decision that cannot be approved. There has to be a separation of church and state and since the banners are being displayed at a school football game, which is an entity of the state, we just cannot allow it," Hunt stated.
Cases of a similar nature have brought communities to a stand still and torn apart groups and affiliations who otherwise have stood firm on their support for one another.
In May of 2011, the Medina Valley School District in Castroville, Texas intended to sponsor at least two student led prayers at its upcoming high school graduation.
Within days, the federal court handed down a ruling concluding that the prayer had to prohibited. That ruling was then overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the day before graduation and allowed the graduation prayers to go forward.
Eventually, in February of 2012, after participating in a multi-day mediation, opposing parties resolved the case out of court.
While both parties are for now at odds, they are in agreement on one point. No harm was intended. However, it will now be up to a court of law to determine the future of the banners and what rights if any have been infringed upon.