HOUSTON (AP) — For three straight weeks, high school football players in a small southeast Texas town took the field by bolting through large red-and-white banners that hollered the praises of Jesus Christ.
Most people in Kountze viewed the banners as evidence of the students' admirable moral upbringing — Christianity and the Bible always had been fundamental to this town of 2,100.
But someone complained to a foundation that fights for the separation of church and state, and by Tuesday, a day after receiving a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the superintendent banned the banners, and the town became embroiled in a controversy that has touched other communities nationwide.
On Thursday, a judge granted a request by the nonprofit Liberty Institute law firm to temporarily bar the implementation of the ban. It also set a hearing for early October when the sides will be able to make their arguments. The cheerleaders planned to raise their 20-foot banners at Thursday evening's junior varsity football game.
People in the town 90 miles northeast of Houston talk of little else. Parents and students have plastered pictures of the banners — some of which quote scripture, declaring "I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me" — on their Facebook pages. A Facebook group created after the ban, Support Kountze Kids Faith, had more than 35,100 members by early Thursday.
Superintendent Kevin Weldon gently explains to every parent who calls that a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court precedent-setting decision requires religion to be kept out of public schools. Some parents support his decision. Others say they will back their children's First Amendment right to hang the banners and are working with the Liberty Institute.
Weldon himself is torn, but he has to abide by the judge's injunction, and will let the attorneys decide whether to fight the institute.
"The decision I made is not my personal opinion," Weldon said. "I'm a Christian. This puts me between a rock and a hard place."
On one side is the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wis.-based nonprofit that challenges any religion in public schools.
"I've never heard of this kind of school problem, this kind of a violation at a public school where students would be expected to run through Bible verses to play football," said the foundation's president, Annie Laurie Gaylor. "It's a new and creative way to work religion into our public schools."
On the other side is the Liberty Institute, a Plano, Texas-based nonprofit law firm that says on its website it is dedicated to "restoring religious liberty across America."
"It's an important and fundamental freedom students have to engage in free speech," said Mike Johnson, senior counsel for the institute. "They are not asking anyone to believe in Christianity or accept the faith. They are just well wishes."
But Tanner Hunt, attorney for the Kountze Independent School District, believes a Supreme Court decision in 2000 that barred prayer at the start of a high school football game sets the precedent.
"This is pretty much a white horse case," Hunt said. "The answer was clear: they must cease and desist."
Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP