By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Cheerleaders at a Texas high school have won a court order allowing them to continue featuring Biblical quotes on the large paper banners that they hold up for football players to tear through when they take the field at the game opening.
The ruling by a Hardin County judge late Thursday over the so-called "Bible Banners" at the school in the east Texas town of Kountze marked the latest twist in a broader national clash over the separation of religion from public schools.
The banners typically use Biblical passages for messages such as "thanks be to God which gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ," and are a tradition in Kountze, which has about 2,100 residents northeast of Houston.
The dispute began when a group that seeks to enforce separation of church and state sent a letter to the school superintendent that contended the banners represented an illegal endorsement of religion by a public entity.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation said it was acting on the complaint of a concerned Kountze resident.
"It is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor, or lead religious messages at school athletic events," said Stephanie Schmitt, a foundation staff attorney.
Superintendent Kevin Weldon, a former high school football coach, said he contacted the school's lawyers after he received the letter and ordered the practice with the banners canceled.
Weldon, a former high school football coach, said he was uncomfortable removing the banners and that a lot of Kountze residents agreed with the cheerleaders, but would follow the decisions of the courts and the school board.
"I applaud the students for what they are standing for, I applaud their convictions," Weldon said. "I have the same convictions they do. My relationship with God is very important to me and this community feels the same way."
The Texas-based Liberty Institute is representing the cheerleaders in the court case.
Liberty Institute's senior counsel, Mike Johnson, said the case was "a quintessential example of students' private speech being censored unnecessarily by uninformed school officials" and the cheerleaders were committed to fighting for their rights.
"They wanted to demonstrate good sportsmanship by including positive messages on their banners that will encourage not only the home team, but also the players and fans on the opposing side," Johnson said.
Liberty Institute President Kelly Shackelford said the group had worked to pass state laws that protect religious speech by students and was ready to pursue the issue as long as it takes.
"These government officials will never learn that a students' religious rights are protected," Shackelford said.
Schmitt said, however, the circumstances appeared similar to a U.S. Supreme Court decision finding it was unconstitutional when a school district effectively gave its seal of a approval for field pregame prayer at a high school football game using the school's public address system.
"A reasonable Kountze student would certainly perceive the banners as stamped with the school's approval," Schmitt said.
(Reporting by Jim Forsyth; Editing by David Bailey and Jackie Frank)