Policy Change Over Bible Ban Mooted Lawsuit

     BEAUMONT, Texas (CN) - Because a Texas school district stopped banning Bible verses on banners shown at football games, an appeals court found Thursday that the cheerleaders who challenged the policy do not have a case.
     Several cheerleaders sued the Kountze Independent School District in Hardin County District Court in 2012, arguing for their right to exercise their personal religious beliefs. The ban was purportedly put in place after the Wisconsin-based atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation complained.
     Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott later intervened in support of the cheerleaders, arguing that the cheerleaders used privately funded supplies on their own time to create the banners.
     Judge Steve Thomas blocked the ban in October 2012, allowing the display of Bible verses for the rest of the football season, and then awarded the cheerleaders summary judgment seven months later, finding religious messages "constitutionally permissible."
     A three-judge panel with the 9th District Court of Appeals in Beaumont found Thursday, however, that the school district had rendered the claims moot by changing its policy to allow religious messages.
     "Not only has Kountze ISD formally adopted a new policy since the initiation of the underlying lawsuit, it has made judicial admissions in the pending litigation to affirm its new policy and its future intentions regarding religious content on the run-through banners," Justice Charles Kreger wrote for the court.
     The cheerleaders failed to show that there was still a controversy over the nature of the speech - whether it is governmental, student-sponsored or private, according to the 26-page opinion.
     Kreger said the court has no authority to resolve a "theoretical or contingent" dispute.
     "With the adoption of Kountze ISD's new policy, there is no evidence that Kountze ISD has prohibited the speech of the students, such that we would be required to determine whether a violation of their free speech right has occurred," he wrote. "Parents cite to no evidence in their brief to this court and we find no evidence in the record that under Kountze ISD's new policy, the cheerleaders' speech has been prohibited. We conclude the allegedly wrongful behavior has passed and cannot reasonably be expected to recur."
     Though their claims were mooted, a matter of awarding attorneys' fees to the cheerleaders is a separate issue, the court added.
     The trial court must resolve that issue on remand.
     Kountz ISD superintendent J. Reese Briggs praised the ruling, noting that the board of trustees took action immediately after the controversy developed and adopted a policy that satisfied both the law and the needs of the community.
     "Kountze ISD permits cheerleaders to include a wide variety of appropriate messages on run-through banners, including Scripture quotations," Briggs said in a statement. "Despite the clear decision of Kountze ISD permitting the banners, the plaintiffs' attorneys continued to press this lawsuit against the school district, asking for a judgment and an award of money against the school district. The decision of the Beaumont Court of Appeals makes clear that Kountze ISD took action to resolve this controversy and that there was no reason to enter a judgment against the school district."