The Texas Supreme Court on Friday ruled in favor of high school cheerleaders who claimed that their free speech was being violated by their school district when it told them they couldn’t display banners with Bible verses at football games.
The justices determined their ruling was still necessary even though the Kountze school district later allowed the banners. The court said the decision will protect the future display of religious-themed signs because the district has argued it retains the right to restrict them. The banners featured some Biblical verses such as, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me."
The ruling now goes to the appeals court that ruled in 2014 the cheerleaders’ lawsuit was moot because the district changed its policy.
Hiram Sasser, deputy chief counsel for the Texas-based Liberty Institute, a law firm that specializes in issues of religious liberty and represented the cheerleaders, said the question now becomes whether the school district will continue the fight.
"Are they going to continue to bleed taxpayer money to fight for the right to censor religious speech?" Sasser asked.
Thomas Brandt, the attorney representing the district, had initially said the issue doesn’t concern free speech because it 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.
Another issue, says Beaumont attorney David Starnes, who also represented the cheerleaders, is whose speech is being represented. The banners represent the private speech of the students who made them, he said, but the district has asserted it retained the right to restrict content because it viewed the banners as government speech.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a complaint in 2012 that sought to have the banners banned. Various state officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott, have supported the cheerleaders and filed court papers seeking to intervene on their behalf.
Attorney General Ken Paxton released a statement Friday applauding the court ruling.
"Religious liberty, deemed by our nation's founders as the 'First Freedom,' is the foundation upon which our society has been built," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.