By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - A Texas high school cheerleading team may continue using religious scriptures on banners at football games for now, a federal judge ruled on Thursday, saying the students had a constitutional right to express their faith on school property.
The ruling 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.
Hardin County State District Judge Steve Thomas, in allowing the banners pending a trial set for June, effectively lets the cheerleaders continue their tradition through the rest of the current high school football season.
Thomas said his ruling would allow the cheerleaders to exercise "their constitutional and statutory rights at all football games and other school sporting events."
The ruling came after a group of cheerleaders and their parents sued the district for barring the banners after a Wisconsin-based group argued that they amounted to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the public school.
"This is a great decision confirming that students do have a First Amendment right to express their religious beliefs in school," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott told Reuters.
"The Constitution does not command religious silence at school. It just prevents the school from dictating religious belief. This was the students doing it on their own, and they have every right to do so," he said.
The case began last month when the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent what it called a "strongly worded letter" to the Kountze school superintendent, telling him that the tradition was illegal because of the banners' religious nature.
Superintendent Kevin Weldon immediately ordered the practice stopped, saying that the district must follow the law, even if it conflicted with the personal beliefs of school administrators and board members.
Abbott filed a petition urging the judge to support the cheerleaders in their quest to paint the banners with Bible verses like "Thanks be to God who gives us victory through Lord Jesus Christ."
Andrew Seidel, an attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said he was bothered by what he described as political winds in Texas that were "blowing quite hard in one direction, while the law is dictating the other direction."
"We have actually had calls from a lot of our members who are addressing church-state concerns in their schools and they are really afraid of reprisals due to conditions that the governor and the attorney general are creating," Seidel said.
The foundation is not a party to the case but Seidel said it would be willing to take the case to federal court if it could find a plaintiff to go on record opposing the practice.
He said the Kountze banners were a clear violation of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2000 that said school-led prayers in another Texas school district violated the constitutional separation of church and state.
Mike Johnson, senior counsel for the Liberty Institute that filed the lawsuit on behalf of the cheerleaders, said that case was substantially different from the Kountze case because it was about prayer at a graduation service arranged by the school.
"Here you have the opposite. You have cheerleaders who do this on their own," he said. "They buy their own supplies. The cheerleaders even buy their own uniforms. It is a quintessential example of student led expression, and for that reason, it is clearly protected by the First Amendment."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Bill Trott)