HOUSTON — A group of high school cheerleaders from southeast Texas asked the state Supreme Court on Wednesday to rule on whether banners emblazoned with Bible verses that they display at football games is protected free speech.
The cheerleaders had filed a lawsuit against the Kountze School District after it had initially said the Christian-themed banners could not be displayed following a complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 2012 that sought to have them banned. The district later allowed the banners, but said it retained the right to restrict their content as it viewed them not as private speech but as government speech.
A state district judge in 2013 ruled the banners were constitutionally permissible. However, in May an appeals court said the cheerleaders' lawsuit was moot, because they were no longer at risk of being kept from displaying the banners because of the policy change.
But in a petition to Texas' highest civil court, attorneys for the cheerleaders said the school district doesn't have to right to restrict the banners' content because the signs are the cheerleaders' constitutionally protected private speech. Their attorneys asked the court to overturn the appeals court's ruling.
"The case is not simply about whether (the school district) is currently allowing religious messages to appear on the cheerleaders' banners," the attorneys wrote in their petition. "Rather, the dispute is whether the speech on the banners is the private speech of the cheerleaders, or government speech of the school. That controversy remains very much alive — because (the district) continues to unconstitutionally treat the cheerleaders' messages on their banners as its own government speech."
In its ruling, the appeals court did not specifically address whether the banners are protected free speech.
"If the opinion ... is not reversed, it will inevitably lead to the silencing of the speech of the cheerleaders — whose only desire is to cheer on their fellow students with a message of their own choosing and their own faith," said David Starnes, one of the cheerleaders' attorneys.
Thomas Brandt, an attorney for the school district, did not immediately return a phone call or email seeking comment. Brandt has previously said the district believes this is not a free speech issue because the district 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.
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. The cheerleaders have also been represented by the Liberty Institute, a Plano, Texas-based nonprofit law firm that works on religious-themed cases.
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