When is a cheerleader not a cheerleader? Hardin County can’t make up its mind

Posted Thursday, May. 09, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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kennedy Every football fan has seen a homer call.

That what state District Judge Steve Thomas of Hardin County dished up this week.

In a sketchy ruling, Thomas wrote that five hometown Kountze High School cheerleaders could bring their own homemade, paper run-through signs with Bible verses to football games.

Before you pop off, think:

Can football players kneel in personal prayer in the end zone before or after a game?

Then is a cheerleader standing in the same spot with her own personal Bible message all that different?

Yes and no, said Texas Wesleyan School of Law professor Lynne Rambo.

“It flies in the face of earlier decisions,” Rambo said, mentioning a school invocation case with different circumstances but broad implications for exactly where “school sanction” begins.

But, she added, until the Supreme Court rules specifically on whether cheerleaders are agents of the school district, they arguably might have the same free speech rights as anyone in the crowd “unless they’re disrupting or interfering with activities.”

Thomas’ ruling gave little explanation other than to say the girls’ signs “have not created, and will not create, an establishment of religion” by government.

But we know he’s familiar with the subject.

As a lawyer in Lumberton, one of the most conservative communities in conservative Southeast Texas, Thomas is president of the Little Dribblers and past vice president of a junior football league, a Pinto Division youth baseball league and the Hardin-Jefferson Youth Football and Cheerleading League.

You might say he’s a cheerleader for cheerleaders.

Across Hardin County in Silsbee, one former high school cheerleader must have been very surprised.

In 2009, a 16-year-old Silsbee cheerleader was kicked off the team for refusing to cheer for a basketball player who she claimed assaulted her.

The player later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault. He got a suspended sentence.

She sued the school district for violating her free speech — and got stuck with the $45,000 bill for court costs.

The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled specifically that she could not remain silent and that a cheerleader is a “mouthpiece” for the school.

Her attorney, Laurence Watts of Missouri City, saw the irony.

“How interesting,” he said Thursday.

“All you’ve got to do to get suspended [from the cheerleading team] is just stand there like my client and keep your mouth shut.

“But if you’re out on the football field with a message that’s clearly unconstitutional — hey, that’s fine.”

Let’s see if that plays outside Southeast Texas.

Bud Kennedy's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 817-390-7538 Twitter: @BudKennedy

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