Kountze Christian Cheerleaders Get Support from Greg Abbott, Rep Steve Stockman, Rep James White, SBOE David Bradley
by David Bellow on September 28, 2012 at 12:07 PM
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has come out swinging in support of the students at Kountze ISD who were told by the school superintendent that they were not allowed to hold personal signs or banners at public football games if they have Bible Verses or religious encouragements on them.
The letter from AG Abbott came at the request of the Liberty Institute whose lawyer, Michael Johnson, is representing the Kountze students.
A couple of days ago, State Representative James White wrote a letter to the Texas Association of School Board President and told him that it was wrong an unwarranted to ban students from holding religious signs at public football games.
Just today, Congressman Steve Stockman, State Rep James White, and State Board of Education member David Bradley sent a letter to every house in Kountze, TX. The letter was to show support for the kids in Kountze who are standing up for their faith. The letter was also an invitation for everyone to come out to the RALLY to support the Kountze Kids on Oct 5th at 7:30pm at the Kountze Football Stadium. More Rally info at www.SupportKountzeKidsFaith.com. Congressman Steve Stockman has even invited any resident of Kountze, TX to see the movie “Last Ounce of Courage” for free. The movie is similar to the situation in Kountze. It is about a man who takes a stand for his faith and for his Constitutional Religious Rights. District Judge Steve Thomas has granted a temporary restraining order that allows students to still hold religious signs. There will be a hearing on Oct 4th to determine if the restraining order will be made permanent.
In a letter to the Superintendent, Kevin Weldon, Abbott says that it violates the Constitution to ban the signs. Abbott tells the superintendent that, unless the superintendent removes the ban, Kountze ISD will have to answer to the State of Texas because his AG office will be officially backing the cheerleaders in court. Abbott goes on to state that the organization who complained about the signs, Freedom From Religious Foundation (FFRF), has tried to cause trouble like this with other schools in Texas but the organization is wrong and the Courts have rejected FFRF and backed Texas and the religious rights of the students. Abbott also offers support for the school district if they remove the ban and are later sued by the FFRF.
Read the full letter from Attorney General Greg Abbott below:
September 27, 2012
Mr. Kevin Weldon
Kountze Independent School District
P.O. Box 460
Kountze, TX 77625
Dear Superintendent Weldon:
I write to offer my assistance and to provide advice about a menacing and misleading letter you recently received from an organization called the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). That organization has a long history of attempting to bully school districts into adopting restrictive religious speech policies that go well beyond what is required by the United States Constitution. Consistent with that history, the letter you received incorrectly claims that allowing Kountze High School cheerleaders to display banners decorated with Bible verses at football games amounts to a "serious and flagrant violation of the First Amendment." That exaggerated claim is not supported by the Constitution. Instead, it is based solely on FFRF's distorted, anti-religion view of the First Amendment, a view that is unsupported by court precedent and has recently been rejected by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
It appears that your recent decision to prohibit the cheerleaders at Kountze High from displaying their religious messages at football games—a decision that has since been blocked by a court order—was based on a mistaken belief that FFRF's letter correctly interprets the law. Unfortunately, that mistaken belief was apparently reinforced by erroneous advice from the Texas Association of School Boards. Contrary to FFRF's claims, however, the Supreme Court has never held that it is illegal for a public school to "host religious messages at school athletic events." And the Supreme Court has never ruled that religion must be "kept out" of public schools. Instead, each of the Supreme Court cases cited in FFRF's letter involve decisions by public officials to promote a religious message or to direct the content of a private citizen's religious message.
Unlike the cases cited by FFRF, Kountze ISD has neither made the decision to include a religious message on the cheerleaders' banner, nor provided any direction as to the content of the cheerleaders' message. Rather, news reports indicate that these decisions were made entirely by students. Those same news reports also indicate that the banners were made by the cheerleaders off of school property and without the use of school funds. That these students chose to express their religious viewpoint at a school function does not violate the Establishment Clause.
When the school district does not join in the students' religious message or seek to control or direct that message, the cheerleaders' decision to display their banners cannot constitute promotion or imposition of religion by the school district. Rather, the banners are the religious speech of individual students, which enjoys protection under the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment.
In addition to the protections afforded by the First Amendment, Texas law further protects students' free exercise of religion by requiring school districts to "treat a student's voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint . . . in the same manner the district treats a student's voluntary expression of a secular or other viewpoint." Tex. Educ. Code § 25.151. Moreover, a school district "may not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject." Id. To the extent the district seeks to prevent the cheerleaders from displaying their banners because the cheerleaders decided to express a religious—as opposed to a secular—message, it may very well violate section 25.151 of the Texas Education Code.
Think about it: Can a school district or the Freedom From Religion Foundation stop a student from making the sign of the cross before taking a test, or stop football players from pointing toward heaven after scoring a touchdown or kneeling to pray for an injured teammate? Of course not. Just like the cheerleaders' banners, such public displays of religion are voluntary expressions of the students' beliefs and are not attributable to the school district.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently vindicated these legal principles—and rejected FFRF's restrictive view of the First Amendment—in a case involving Medina Valley ISD in Castroville, Texas. In May 2011, a group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit against Medina Valley in an attempt to prevent student speakers from praying as part of their speech at their graduation ceremony. My office supported the school district by arguing that the First Amendment does not require public schools to interfere with students' right to freely express their religious beliefs. A unanimous panel of three federal appeals judges ruled in favor of the school district and permitted Medina Valley High School seniors to pray at their graduation ceremony. The appeals court explained that there was no showing that the "prayers or other remarks to be given by students at graduation are, in fact, school-sponsored." The same is true here: The cheerleaders are expressing their own beliefs, not those of the school district. Just as Americans United for Separation of Church and State was wrong in Castroville, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is wrong in Kountze.
As the United States Supreme Court has observed, "[w]e are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being." Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 313 (1952). And as the Fifth Circuit's Medina Valley ruling demonstrates, school districts that allow students to speak freely about their religious beliefs have the Constitution on their side. A school district's policies regarding student expressions of religious belief should be guided by the educational goals of the district and an appropriate respect for students' freedoms of speech and religion—not by threatening letters that misstate the law and distort the First Amendment.
If you decide to allow the cheerleaders of Kountze High to freely display their chosen message on their banners at football games, and if the Freedom From Religion Foundation or any other group sues Kountze ISD as a result, my office stands ready to file a brief with the court protecting the cheerleaders' religious liberties.
Attorney General of Texas