Judge rules in favor of cheerleaders' use of religion

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HARDIN COUNTY, Texas - A favorable ruling Thursday cleared the way for the Kountze High School cheerleaders to continue using Bible verses on their game banners through the end of the school year.

The victory is temporary as the case is headed for trial in June.

"I think, 'Woo-Hoo,' that's what I think," said cheerleader Whitney Jennings. "I'm done worrying. No more stress, I'm doing my thing."

The Kountze Independent School District ordered the cheerleading squad to stop using Bible verses on game banners after receiving a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The cheerleaders then sued the district, claiming the order violated their constitutional rights.

Thursday's ruling by Judge Steve Thomas granted the cheerleaders' request for a temporary injunction until the case goes to trial.

"A huge weight has been lifted, so it feels good," said cheerleader Kieara Moffett.

Following the judge's ruling, several cheerleaders and their parents gathered in the Hardin County courthouse to express their relief.

"The score and our boys coming out fighting, that's all I'm worrying about," said cheerleader Ashton Jennings.

"I'm thankful for the experience, and I'm thankful God has his hand in this and that He went before us with the judge," said cheerleader Rebekah Richardson.

 "It certainly has been a teachable moment that students still have their constitutional rights and the Supreme Court has affirmed that for more than 40 years," said attorney Mike Johnson.

"Students have the right to freely express their religious viewpoints in every school district in Texas," said attorney David Starnes.

With the case set for trial next year, an attorney for the school district, Thomas Brandt, said a settlement is not out of the question but admits that could be tough in a case like this one.

"It's a difficult situation to reach a settlement on, either you let the banners on or you don't," said Brandt. "There's not a real middle ground you can reach."

Kountze ISD school board member John Eppes would not comment on why the district's superintendent felt the need to impose this order. Eppes added he feels "some politicians" are unfairly portraying the school board to the public.

"I'm for what they're doing, what the cheerleaders are doing, but by the same token, we as board members are being made out to be the villains," said Eppes.

The judge's ruling also means the cheerleaders can display the banner they have already made for Friday's game. Moffett said the squad already picked out a Bible verse.

"'Things which are impossible with man are possible with God,'" said Moffett.

Both Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott are supporting the girls' legal battle.

The Anti-Defamation League quickly denounced the judge's ruling by calling it, "misguided."

"This misguided decision flies in the face of well-established U.S. Supreme Court precedent prohibiting school-sponsored religious activity. Public schools are for children of all faiths or no faith, and these banners were clearly being displayed in the context of school-sponsored activities. Faith is a profoundly personal decision, so students should not be subjected to an exclusionary school-sponsored religious message on campus or be forced to choose between attending quintessential school events – football games -- or being subjected to an unwanted religious message. Our perspective in no way reflects hostility toward religion. Rather, it is based on a profound respect for religious freedom and an appreciation of the extraordinary diversity of religions represented by the students in our public schools," wrote ADL Southwest Regional Director Martin Cominsky.

Copyright 2012 by Click2Houston.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.