Judge rules Kountze ISD cheerleaders can display religious signs

BEAUMONT, Texas - A judge ruled Wednesday that cheerleaders at a Southeast Texas high school can display banners emblazoned with Bible verses at football games.

State District Judge Steve Thomas determined the Kountze High School cheerleaders' banners are constitutionally permissible. In a copy of the ruling obtained by Beaumont station KFDM, Thomas determined that no law "prohibits cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events."

"Today is a great day for religious liberty throughout Texas and this country," said attorney David Starnes, who represented the cheerleaders. "They will be able to freely express their religious beliefs in public schools throughout Texas and throughout this nation."

"No matter what God always has everything in control and he's going to work it out," added cheerleader Kieara Moffett.

The ruling ends the case in Thomas' court, but it can be appealed by the school district.

The dispute began during the last football season when the district barred cheerleaders from using run-through banners that displayed religious messages, such as "If God is for us, who can be against us."

"All we wanted to do whenever we decided to make the banners was to encourage our team and the opposing team and the fans. We never expected it to be this huge," said cheerleader Rebekaa Richardson.

The district, which received a complaint about the banners from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, argued the banners violated a First Amendment clause that bars government, or, in this case, publicly funded school districts, from establishing or endorsing a religion.

"We're disappointed in the decision because we believe in the religious diversity of our state and we believe that all religions should be honored," said Anti-Defamation League Regional Director Martin Cominsky. "We believe the best way to do that is there's not a place for religion in public schools."

The Liberty Institute, a Plano, Texas-based nonprofit law firm, represented the cheerleaders and argued the girls' free speech rights were being violated by the school district's ban.

"This is a great victory for the cheerleaders and now they're going to be able to have their banners," said Hiram Sasser, a lead attorney for the institute.

Thomas Brandt, the school district's attorney, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

In October, Thomas temporarily allowed the cheerleaders to continue displaying the banners pending the lawsuit's outcome. Thomas at the time said the school district's ban on the practice appeared to violate the students' free speech rights. The Liberty Institute had argued the banners' messages were not asking anyone to believe in Christianity or accept the faith.

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.

"Today's ruling is a win for free speech and religious freedom," said Gov. Rick Perry. "The Kountze High School cheerleaders showed great resolve and maturity beyond their years in standing up for their beliefs and constitutional rights. I'm proud of them and I celebrate this victory alongside them."

A Facebook group created after the ban, Support Kountze Kids Faith, has more than 45,000 members.

Copyright 2013 by Click2Houston.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.