HOUSTON – A group of Southeast Texas high school cheerleaders is no longer at risk of being kept from displaying banners emblazoned with Bible verses at football games, an appeals court ruled Thursday.
The cheerleaders' school district, which had been sued in the case, hailed the ruling a victory.
But Hiram Sasser, an attorney for the cheerleaders, said he worries the ruling leaves open the question of whether the religious liberties of his clients and others will be protected in the future.
The lawsuit by the cheerleaders' parents stems from a complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 2012 that sought to have the Christian-themed signs banned.
The Kountze School District had initially said the banners could not be displayed, but it later changed its policy, allowing them. However, trustees said the district retained the right to restrict the content of school banners.
The school district wanted the lawsuit dismissed because it had changed its policy. But State District Judge Steven Thomas denied that request and last year ruled the banners are constitutionally permissible.
The 9th Texas Court of Appeals in Beaumont overturned the crux of Thomas' ruling, saying the lower court should not have heard the case because the district's policy change resolved the dispute. The appeals court said the claims in the lawsuit were thus moot.
The school district "has essentially repealed the ban and modified its policy in such a way to allow the religiously-themed messages on the banners. Accordingly, we conclude, there is no reasonable expectation that the student cheerleaders will suffer the same alleged wrong," the three-member panel of the appeals court wrote.
But Sasser said he was disappointed in part by the ruling.
"I don't think it provides any protection for the religious liberties of Kountze cheerleaders in the future," said Sasser, a lead attorney for the Liberty Institute, a Plano, Texas-based nonprofit law firm that represented the cheerleaders.
Sasser said he's considering an appeal.
The cheerleaders in Kountze, located about 95 miles northeast of Houston, were supported by various state officials, including Gov. Rick Perry and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who filed court papers seeking to intervene on their behalf.
Thomas Brandt, the district's attorney, said the district believes this is not a free speech issue because the district has editorial control over the content of the banners. He said that the district would not forbid any banners that were religious in nature, but would do so if they contained language that was offensive or in poor taste.
"What we have is a victory of common sense," Brandt said.
In its ruling, the appeals court did not specifically address whether the banners are protected free speech, only saying that with the policy change, it had found no evidence the school district "has prohibited the speech of the students."
The appeals court did send the case back to the lower court to resolve the payment of lawyers' fees.