A Texas public school should be required to prevent cheerleaders from displaying large banners with Bible verses on the field during football games, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and its allies have advised a state court.
In a friend-of-the-court brief filed yesterday in Matthews v. Kountze Independent School District, Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and other religious and civil liberties groups urged the Texas Supreme Court to find that religious banners displayed by cheerleaders at public school football games violate the First Amendment.
“High school football is an integral part of communities in Texas,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Everyone should feel welcome at those events, particularly when a public school is involved. But that cannot happen when representatives of the school, such as cheerleaders, display prominent signs with Bible verses.”
The legal challenge involves cheerleaders at Kountze High School who used banners with Bible verses to motivate the football team during games. School administrators ordered the practice stopped in September 2012 in response to an anonymous complaint.
Examples of signs included: “But thanks be to God, which gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me” and “If God be for us who can be against us?”
After the school directed the cheerleaders to stop displaying the banners, they filed a lawsuit in a state court, which found in favor of the students. In October 2012, the trial court said the cheerleaders could display religious messages for the rest of the season. In April 2013, the school district adopted a policy allowing the cheerleaders to deliver religious messages at football games. Although it was no longer a contested issue, the trial court later ruled that the banners did not violate the First Amendment. Because the trial court did not dismiss the cheerleaders’ claim for attorney’s fees, however, the school district appealed.
In May, 2014, the Court of Appeals of Texas dismissed all appeals related to the substantive issues of the case. Attorneys for the cheerleaders appealed, however, and the matter is now before the Texas Supreme Court.
The cheerleaders have argued that their banners are private speech that should be protected because the large signs are not made by school officials – an argument the brief rejects.
“The mere fact that KISD’s run-through banners are initially prepared by the KHS cheerleading squad does not insulate them from Establishment Clause scrutiny,” asserts the brief. “The banners are prepared at the behest of school officials, as part of the squad’s official duties. School officials review and approve banners before they are displayed at football games, and the District gives the cheerleaders special access to the field to unfurl and present the banners to the crowd. The Bible verses painted on the banners are, therefore, attributable to the District – a fact that KISD does not dispute.”
Said Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper: “Time and time again, courts have made clear that parents – not public schools or their sports teams – are responsible for the religious instruction of children. When students are part of a captive audience at a high school football game, school-sponsored religious messages are out of bounds.”
The brief was written by Rebecca L. Robertson of the ACLU of Texas, along with Daniel Mach and Heather L. Weaver of the ACLU. AU’s Lipper provided input.
Other organizations signing the brief are: the Anti-Defamation League, the Interfaith Alliance Foundation, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Hindu American Foundation and the Sikh Coalition.