Our country was founded on the very concept of religious freedom, and our Founding Fathers understood that creating and maintaining a free society requires protecting religious expression and the rights of individuals to exercise their personally-held religious beliefs. While the federal and state constitutions, as well as federal and state statutes, contain numerous provisions that protect our religious liberties, religious freedom is still being threatened in Texas and across our great nation.
One such example is the case of Matthews v. Kountze Independent School District (KISD). In 2012, KISD banned the use of Bible verses and other articulations of personal religious faith on run-through banners created by cheerleaders at the local high school. The cheerleaders purchased the materials for the banners themselves and decided on their own accord to include expressions of faith on the banners to encourage the players and the fans. However, after receiving a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, KISD board members quickly implemented a policy banning religiously-themed messages on run-through banners.
The cheerleaders filed a lawsuit stating that the district’s policy violated the provisions of our state’s Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act, which I co-authored while serving in the Texas House of Representatives. The Act requires school districts to treat a student’s voluntary religious expression the same as they would a voluntary expression on a secular viewpoint. Furthermore, the Act provides that a district “may not discriminate against the students based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student.”
After months of litigation, KISD decided to change its policy in 2013. According to KISD’s new policy, the run-through banners were no longer considered student speech, as had previously been the case, but were now considered the school’s speech. As a result, the banners were, according to KISD, no longer a means for the cheerleaders to design, construct and display messages to the football players and fans but were now only an expression of the school’s message.
For decades, cheerleaders at Kountze High School created run-through banners to increase pre-game excitement, and historically the design and content of the banners were left solely to the discretion of the cheerleaders. According to KISD and its new policy, however, the cheerleaders no longer control the messages on their banners. Instead, according to KISD, the banners actually convey the school’s speech, and not the cheerleaders’ personal expressions of faith – even though the school does not play, and has never played, a role in designing the banners, devising the content of the messages displayed on them or paying for their construction. The implementation of this new policy, if accepted, threatens to set a precedent under which public schools and individual administrators could usurp a wide range of student speech to control its content and point-of-view.
In September of this year, I filed an amicus brief with the Texas Supreme Court in Matthews v. Koutze Independent School District, supporting the constitutional rights of Texas’ public schoolchildren to express their own messages at school and school-related events. When our fundamental rights are threatened, we have an obligation to defend them. I am honored to have this opportunity to stand with the students and parents at Kountze High School who are committed to move forward in this important fight.