AUSTIN (CN) - A Texas school district that briefly banned the display of Bible verses on banners during football games must face a cheerleader-led challenge, the state Supreme Court ruled.
The Kountze Independent School District purportedly adopted the ban upon receiving objections from the Freedom From Religious Foundation, an atheist group based in Wisconsin.
Though the Harding County District Court granted the cheerleaders an injunction and later summary judgment, the 9th District Court of Appeals in Beaumont reversed in May 2014, calling the lawsuit moot since the school district had changed it policy in the interim to allow the religious messages.
The latest reversal, handed to the cheerleaders Friday by the state's highest court, disagrees that the school district's lifting of the ban deprived courts "of the power to hear or determine claims" for relief.
"If it did, defendants could control the jurisdiction of courts with protestations of repentance and reform, while remaining free to return to their old ways," Justice John Devine wrote for the unanimous court. "This would obviously defeat the public interest in having the legality of the challenged conduct settled."
Lifting the ban does not make "absolutely clear" that the school district will not reverse itself after litigation is over, the court emphasized
"Throughout this litigation, the district has continually defended not only the constitutionality of that prohibition, but also its unfettered authority to restrict the content of the cheerleaders' banners - including the apparent authority to do so based solely on their religious content," the seven-page opinion states. "In fact, while the district has indicated it does not have any current 'intent' or 'plan' to reinstate that prohibition, the district has never expressed the position that it could not, and unconditionally would not, reinstate it."
Seven justices joined Devine's lead opinion, with two filing concurring opinions.
A ninth member of the court, Justice Jeff Boyd, did not participate in the decision.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton applauded the high court's ruling.
"Religious liberty, deemed by our nation's founders as the 'First Freedom,' is the foundation upon which our society has been built," he said in a statement Friday. "I'm pleased the Texas Supreme Court has ensured that the Kountze cheerleaders will be able to continue defending their right to express their faith - the most fundamental of American freedoms."
Kountze school district administrators did not return emails seeking comment Monday afternoon.Follow @davejourno
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