Earlier this month, the Kountze High School cheerleaders won a lawsuit that said they could hold up banners with Bible verses on them to support the football team:
You may recall that the cheerleaders were actually fighting their school district in court (not some atheist group) because then-Superintendent Kevin Weldon had told them to stop with the banners. So when Judge Steve Thomas ruled in favor of the cheerleaders, he was simultaneously telling the district it couldn’t stop them from being all preachy on the football field. Thomas wrote in his decision (PDF):
The evidence in this case confirms that religious messages expressed on run-through banners have not created, and will not create, an establishment of religion in the Kountze community.
Neither the Establishment Clause nor any other law prohibits the cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events. Neither the Establishment Clause nor any other law requires Kountze I.S.D. to prohibit the inclusion of religious-themed banners at school sporting events.
There are two big problems with this ruling.
One: It makes no sense at all. How could any reasonable person see cheerleaders in school uniforms hoisting banners with Bible verses on them and not see a link between the school district and Christianity?
Two: The decision isn’t very clear about what is allowed. Judge Thomas wrote that no law “requires Kountze I.S.D. to prohibit the inclusion of religious-themed banners”… which means the district doesn’t have to put a stop to the students’ banners.
But suppose the cheerleaders hold up their Bible banners again next year, and a local parent gets upset over it. Could that parents sue the district for promoting religion? And would the district have to pay up if/when they lose (because, with any other judge, they’d probably lose)?
The district doesn’t know the answer to that and that worries them.
Because of that lack of clarity in Thomas’ decision, the lawyers for the district are now filing an appeal — in essence, continuing a battle against the district’s own students — just so there’s no question over whether or not the banners are okay:
“We think the attorneys on the other side are reading into the court’s decision rights that just aren’t there,” said Attorney Tom Brandt of Fanning Harper Martinson Brandt & Kutchin in Dallas, who represents Kountze ISD, in a statement. “The school district believes that it is in everyone’s best interests to seek clarification rather than subject the district to additional costly litigation in the future. The school board’s decision to appeal was not made lightly, particularly given the fact that the district court’s order actually granted some of the relief the school district sought, namely, that Kountze ISD is not required to prohibit religious-themed banners at school sporting events.”
It’s actually a pretty savvy move on the district’s part. Even if they “lose” the appeal — and the higher court says that the cheerleaders can continue to hoist their religious banners — it keeps the district off the hook in the face of any future lawsuit. (You can’t sue us! We were just doing what the judge told us to do!)
And that lawsuit could very well come, especially since Judge Thomas’ ruling goes against all established precedents. (The Freedom From Religion Foundation is already looking for people who may want to challenge the cheerleaders.)
Of course, the cheerleaders’ lawyers don’t see this appeal that way at all. At least publicly, they’re complaining that the district just has it out for these young Christian cheerleaders, giving no indication they’re aware of the district’s strategy:
“It is unfortunate that Kountze ISD keeps spending taxpayer money fighting against the speech rights of these cheerleaders,” said Hiram Sasser, Director of Litigation for Liberty Institute. “I do not understand why the school district cannot simply accept that it lost and move on instead of continuing to fight against these cheerleaders who simply wanted to encourage the players with uplifting messages.”
This is really unbelievable. These two groups are fighting each other in court… even though they’re basically on the same side of the issue — they both wrongly think high school cheerleaders can legally promote the Bible at a school function. I can’t recall ever seeing that before.
However this appeal goes, I still hope FFRF can find a plaintiff and sue the district over the church/state separation issue. The district may end up immune from paying any damages, but there’s still no good reason student athletes should be promoting religion when they’re on the field.
(Thanks to Richard for the link!)