From Congress Ave. to Texas Capitol, Kountze cheerleaders stir debate


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist MICHAEL MOORE

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on October 18, 2012 at 6:17 PM

Updated Thursday, Oct 18 at 6:21 PM

AUSTIN -- Cheerleaders in the small East Texas town of Kountze can continue to display religious messages on banners at football games after a Hardin County judge granted a temporary injunction in the cheerleaders' favor Thursday afternoon.

The Kountze High School cheerleaders have become the focus of attention in Texas and across the country over paper banners emblazoned with Bible verses used to kick off football games. The practice was halted after a complaint made its way to the district superintendent, who sought advice in part from the Texas Association of School Boards. While the association doesn't discuss confidential conversations, it explained in a statement to KVUE its typical legal training.

"Federal court guidance reflected in that training draws a distinction between private student speech, including written messages, which enjoys free speech protection under the First Amendment, and school-sponsored speech, which must conform to the Establishment Clause by not endorsing, coercing, or favoring religion," wrote TASB Director of Legal Services Joy Baskin.

"The United States Supreme Court considered similar factors in a previous case involving Texas high school football games in which the Court determined that a student elected by her peers was engaging in school-sponsored speech when she delivered an invocation over the loudspeaker pursuant to a school district policy and under the supervision of school officials," Baskin further explained. 

Parents of the cheerleaders filed suit against the district and Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation joined the district's defense. On Wednesday, Texas' highest ranking lawmakers voiced support for the cheerleaders at a media conference held at the Texas Capitol. 

"If you think about it, the Kountze cheerleaders simply wanted to call a little attention to their faith and to their Lord. Well they ultimately succeeded in that," said Texas Governor Rick Perry, who told media he called the cheerleaders last week. "I just told them I was proud of them for standing up for their beliefs. That although they were 15, 16, 17 years of age, that they showed great maturity."

"This is not an issue where the school has either provided this expression nor established a policy that allows this expression," said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. "This is student-led expression, and that's perfectly constitutional, perfectly satisfies all the cases issued by the Supreme Court."

The controversy in Kountze has struck a chord with some, and on Austin's Congress Avenue KVUE heard from folks on both sides.

"I believe in freedom of religion, and if the Wisconsin group believes in freedom against religion then it's up to them," said Austin resident Valerie Onyett. "But they shouldn't bring it to Texas, and I think the attorney general is going about it in the right way."

"I think the cheerleaders have the right to say that, the right to do that, and more power to them," said Mary Brown.

"I think that anything that's going to make people of different religions feel really uncomfortable doesn't have a place in a public facility that we are all paying taxes to go to," said Dorie Pickle.

"Personally I don't think that religion really has any place in the public schools," said Ben Pickle. "I'd kind of be curious how they would react if there was a school that was predominantly Muslim, for example that had Koranic verses."

The governor was asked what his reaction to such a scenario would be on Wednesday.

"I don't know whether you'd be here, I would be," said Perry. "The point is that as I said in my remarks, this is about all religions and the freedom that is what this country was based upon."

The judge's ruling Thursday means the messages can continue for now, but the debate is far from over. That judge ruled the cheerleaders' First Amendment rights were endangered and allowed the religious banners pending the outcome of a June 24 trial.

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