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Texas intervenes on side of cheerleaders suing over Bible banners

By Tim Eaton, Austin American-Statesman –

AUSTIN, Texas — Gov. Rick Perry and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott threw themselves and the state into the middle of a controversial court case involving God and football Wednesday — the day before a judge could decide whether a group of cheerleaders can continue to hoist Christian banners at high school games.

Flanked by Perry at a Capitol news conference, Abbott said he has intervened in a lawsuit by a group of public school cheerleaders in Kountze, about 90 miles northeast of Houston, as they fight their school district to continue using Bible messages on breakaway banners that football players run through when taking the field. A recent one quoted Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.” “It’s a student-led expression, and that’s perfectly constitutional, perfectly satisfies all the cases issued by the United States Supreme Court,” Abbott said at the news conference.

Abbott intervened in the case after the Kountze Independent School District questioned the constitutionality of state law in a court filing, his office said.

Abbott said that the 2007 Texas Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act is legal and requires school districts to treat students’ expressions of religious views in the same was they treat students’ nonreligious expressions.

The state’s motion urges a district court in Hardin County to dismiss Kountze ISD’s argument that says religious messages cheerleaders displayed during football games violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment — which forbids governments from establishing an official religion and prohibits it from favoring one religion over another.

Neither the 2007 state act — nor the U.S. Constitution — allows government officials to ban references to religion from the public square, Abbott added.

Perry, who often touts his own deep faith, said at the news conference that the cheerleaders were simply attempting to inspire their fellow students, but they ended up being told to quiet down.

“During the upcoming session of the Legislature, I will continue to find ways to preserve those religious expressions and explore ways to protect people of faith from this ongoing onslaught,” Perry said. “Any infringement upon the right is an insult to our great nation.”

The controversy began in September when the school district banned the banners. The move came after the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group that supports an atheist/agnostic viewpoint, complained that the biblical verses violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Tom Brandt, who is representing the superintendent and the school district, said in an interview Wednesday that Superintendent Kevin Weldon responded by calling the district’s general counsel and a lawyer for the Texas Association of School Boards, both of whom told Weldon that case law shows religiously themed banners are prohibited at school events. Not wanting to break the law and seeking to protect district money and assets, Weldon ordered a ban on the banners, Brandt said.

Some cheerleaders’ parents responded by bringing suit in district court in Hardin County. The cheerleaders said the school district had censored them. They are represented by the Liberty Institute, which fights legal battles on behalf of Christian priorities and issues.

A twist in the case occurred Oct. 4, the first day the school district appeared in court, Brandt said. There, a cheerleader testified that the superintendent’s decision made her feel like her Christian faith wasn’t good enough, Brandt said.

At that point, district officials felt that the ban could be problematic. While the district, as a governmental entity, couldn’t endorse a religion, it also cannot be hostile toward one either, he said.

“You are supposed to maintain neutrality,” said Brandt, who noted that the superintendent and trustees on the board are all Christians and don’t carry any animosity. “We’re trying to find that thin line to walk.” The issue could be decided — at least in the short-term — Thursday, when a state judge in Hardin County could rule on a preliminary injunction in the case.

In the meantime, the case has drawn attention from politicians at numerous levels of government, from the governor’s office to candidates for Texas House, State Board of Education and even the Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas.

James Henson, a University of Texas government professor and director of the Texas Politics Project, said there are clearly “political and electoral payoffs” to siding with religious causes.

Henson said: “No Republican politician has ever gone broke defending the right to express a Christian point of view in the public sphere in Texas.”

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