Texas acts to defend cheerleaders' use of religious messages

AUSTIN, Texas Wed Oct 17, 2012 4:15pm EDT

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AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - The state of Texas is seeking to intervene in a lawsuit on behalf of a high school cheerleading team fighting to continue featuring religious messages on banners at football games, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said on Wednesday.

The cheerleaders and their parents filed a lawsuit against the school district of the East Texas town of Kountze after the district banned religious messages on the banners.

Abbott and Texas Governor Rick Perry told reporters at a state Capitol press conference that they will work to ensure the cheerleaders' freedom of expression. They sat in front of photos of football players taking the field by tearing through a banner held by cheerleaders that said: "If God is for us, who can be against us?"

A petition filed with Texas District Court of Hardin County by Abbott said the state was seeking to intervene in order to defend the constitutionality of Texas statutes. The petition said, "The State also has an interest in defending laws that were specifically enacted to preserve religious liberty, because a challenge to those laws could potentially erode the religious liberties of all Texans."

The school district banned the religious messages after a Wisconsin group that seeks to enforce the separation of church and state sent a letter to the school superintendent, saying the banners represented an illegal endorsement of religion by a public entity.

"We will not allow atheist groups from outside of the state of Texas to come into the state to use menacing and misleading intimidation tactics to try to bully schools to bow down at the altar of secular beliefs," Abbott said on Wednesday.

The cheerleaders produce the banners on their own time with private supplies, he said.

Last month, the cheerleaders won a temporary order allowing the continued use of religious messages on the banners. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Thursday.

Kountze, which is about 90 miles northeast of Houston near the Louisiana state line, has about 2,100 residents.

"As government leaders, we owe it to people of all religions to protect expressions of faith, to ensure everyone has the right to voice their opinions and worship as they see fit," said Perry, who, like Abbott, is a Republican.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has said it was acting on the complaint of a concerned Kountze resident.

(Editing by Leslie Adler)

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