A judge on Thursday gave a group of cheerleaders in Texas exactly what they’ve been praying for: the right to display Biblical verses on banners for football games at their public high school, setting the stage for a new battle over the line between church and state.
“The judge came into court and announced he was granting a temporary injunction,” said attorney David Starnes, who represents the girls. “It means the students will be allowed to display whatever they want on the school banners, at long as it meets school policy.”
The closely-watched case has ignited a national controversy over religious freedom and the judge’s ruling drew applause in the packed courtroom. The case has been set for trial next year.
“It’s very exciting to us,” said 15-year-old Macy Matthews, a cheerleader on the Kountze High School varsity squad, who added the girls got the idea from a photo on a social networking site. “It’s important because they sort of took away our rights, and today, we got our rights back,” she said.
The Kountze High School cheerleaders were banned from using banners with Biblical verses like “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me,” and “If God is for us, who can be against us?” after it turned out someone was against them – or at least, against their banners.
Shortly after the football season began, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a complaint it said was on behalf of someone in the community who was bothered by the religious messages, and claimed they violate the first amendment of the US Constitution.
The school district reluctantly told the girls to stop. And in a David-and-Goliath style lesson straight out of the Old Testament, the girls and their parents fought back, filing suit for the right to display the messages made on their own time, with their own money, at school functions.
“They are representing the school, and it’s a farce to say that this is not a school-sponsored message,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
“These are giant 10-foot banners that are directed at the audience. They are the center of attention and they are using it like a podium to proselytize and promote their own religion.”
The case has attracted the attention of the entire state including Governor Rick Perry who held a press conference Wednesday to say, “In America, people are free to express their religious freedom.”
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott intervened in the case, telling news media it represents “a principle that is a fundamental right for the students in this state as well as Americas all across the country.”
In the heart of the Bible belt, in a state where football is almost its own religion, the ruling is a decisive step in a case that has united the tiny town of Kountze. With a winning football team, the high school games are well-attended. But these days, many in the bleachers bring their own religious signs.
“America: One Nation Under God,” read one sign at a recent game. Another, held by an elderly man in military uniform, read “WWII: 470,000 Americans Died Defending Your Freedoms.”
"I haven't been to a game in 10 years, but I came out tonight to support the cheerleaders," 54-year-old Cindy Reed told the Beaumont Enterprise. "The support for them has been awesome and has really changed the town, pulling everyone together."
Gaylor isn’t surprised by the ruling, but is hopeful that as the Biblical messages spread to other cheering squads at other schools in other districts someone else will come forward who is willing to fight publicly and take the case to a higher court.