The highest court in Texas has revived a lawsuit brought by cheerleaders at a Texas high school who were barred, for a time, from displaying banners with religious messages at school football games.
The Texas Supreme Court ruled unanimously to reinstate the suit against the Kountze Independent School District, even though the district later relented from its fall 2012 prohibition against student groups displaying religious messages at school-sponsored events.
The cheerleaders had displayed banners with messages such as, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
They sued the district and its then-superintendent, who had said he felt bound by U.S. Supreme Court precedent to prohibit the religious messages on public school grounds. The disagreement attracted nationwide attention and the involvement of outside legal organizations on both sides.
As the suit proceeded, the school district backed away from the policy against religious messages. A state trial court issued an order sought by the district that said “neither the establishment clause nor any other law prohibits the cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events.”
But that order sowed confusion about whether the cheerleaders’ banners were private speech or school speech. The district then asked a state appellate court to declare the suit moot, which that court did.
The state supreme court, ruling 8-0 with one justice not participating, rather drily held that the case was not moot.
“The district has never expressed the position that it could not, and unconditionally would not, reinstate” the old policy, the court said in its Jan. 29 decision in Matthews v. Kountze Independent School District.
Justice Don R. Willett filed a concurrence that says much remains unclear about the scope of the trial court’s original order, and he called on that court to more fully address the constitutional rights of the students.
Justice Eva M. Guzman filed a concurrence that said “free religious expression must be afforded no less than equal respect” than other constitutional rights.
“Our state and federal constitutions embody a fundamental commitment to religious liberty and guarantee the freedom to express diverse thoughts without governmental interference,” Guzman wrote.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.