Kountze, Texas — Kountze hasn’t changed much since 2012. The Brookshire Brothers grocery store is located on the main highway through a small town. Hardin Courthouse is within walking distance. And just northwest of the farm-to-market road are middle and high schools. Behind it is a soccer field that is very similar to what it was nearly 10 years ago.
The soccer field is surrounded by a dense forest. The field is still grass, football is a religion, and it is unusual for most high school students to grow on artificial turf.
Locals will say it’s because the school district is poor. But Conts is very rich in other ways like pride and history.
It was in 2012 that the high school cheerleader displayed the soccer team’s custom run-through banner.
“The first one was for returning home,” said Ashton Benken. “I can do everything through Christ, who strengthens me.”
Benken was in the cheering squad with his twin sister Whitney Peters. To date, she believes her cousin came up with the idea of putting Bible poems and Christian messages on banners.
Benken recalls that the soccer team won the game and created the next banner for the away game. Signs that bring Kountze to the forefront of national news and pit the cheerleaders in a court battle with the school district.
“By the next week, we were told we couldn’t do them anymore,” Benken said.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a complaint with Kountze ISD on behalf of someone anonymous. Acting on legal advice, policeman Kevin Weldon subsequently banned the banner from passing.
“We didn’t know how the real world sees God,” Benken said.
News cameras, and finally lawyers, gathered at Conts. By September 2012, the cheerleaders had filed a proceeding against KISD and were eventually given a temporary restraint order to continue creating the banner.
“We weren’t trying to support God. I think it’s a bad thing. The goal was that this was a better route than killing other teams.”
The focus of the debate was whether the banner violated the establishment clause, but cheerleaders and their parents were free to speak because the banner was the influence of school staff and the self-expression of girls without help. Claimed to be protected.
According to Ashton and Whitney, the only group the cheerleaders asked was soccer players.
“We literally ran in two days,” Peters said.
District lawyers argued that the cheerleaders were school representatives and therefore the flag could be regulated.
In May 2013, the case was brought to court and a judge in the Hardin County District Court ruled in favor of the girls.
KISD filed an appeal and the American Civil Liberties Union filed an Amikas brief to support the district. However, this case was considered controversial, as KISD had already changed its policy to allow banners.
To clarify that it is the cheerleader’s constitutional right to display the banner, the cheerleader’s lawyer reviews the case with the Texas Supreme Court and reinstates the student’s right to free religious expression. I asked to confirm.
Ted Cruz, John Cornyn and Ken Paxton have submitted their own briefs to support the cheering squad. In a 2016 8-0 decision, the Texas Supreme Court decided in favor of Kountze Cheerleader, who sent the case back to Beaumont’s District 9 Appeals Court.
The Court of Appeals also ruled in favor of the girls, and the school district’s appeal was dismissed by the Texas Supreme Court in 2018, ending the six-year court battle.
“It feels like it has robbed a certain part of our lives, but it has also added a lot of substance to our lives,” Benken said.
By 2018, Ashton and Whitney had been graduating long ago. Today, their sister Audrey is a sophomore at Kunze High School and is now wearing a cheering uniform.
“We tell people that we are the Kountze Cheer Squad. They are like,’Oh, is that the sign?'” Said Audrey Jennings.
Audrey shared a photo showing the football run-through banner used in this past season. It is black with the Conts Lions in big red letters. In the center is a lion contour, with its front legs extending as if it were ready to hit the opponent.
“We make banners,” Audrey said. “But it’s hard to get enough people. I think we’re lazy.”
The sisters share a laugh, but Whitney reiterates that Audrey’s cheerleaders have choices and they choose to focus on competitive cheerleading. Audrey’s team has just returned from Florida and finished seventh in the nation.
“If a group comes in and wants to do it, we can do it because we fought for it,” Peters said.
Ashton and Whitney are 25 years old, married and now have their own children. While the court battle is behind them, they will be forever solidified in Texas history as cheerleaders who fought for the right to free religious expression.
Battle of Kountze Cheerleaders for Freedom of Speech
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