Cheerleaders for Christ

The women of Kountze, Texas, have been fighting for four years to put Bible verses on their banners. Their case is a look at what's ahead for religious-liberty conflicts in America.

Keke Moffett, a former cheerleader at Kountze High School in Texas, poses in front of the stands at her old school in March 2016. (Michael Starghill Jr.)

KOUNTZE, Tex.—The cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas, have been painting Bible verses on the banners they hold up at football games for nearly four years. Players line up on Friday nights behind a big stretch of unrolled butcher paper, busting through it as they run onto the field. Instead of a negative slogan, along the lines of “Kill the Tatum Eagles,” the girls wanted to write messages that were more positive, ones “that were really encouraging and honorable to God,” as one of them put it. They proposed this at their cheer camp in the summer of 2012. After the moms who sponsored the club got sign off from the school principal, the girls made their first signs, sporting messages like “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” from Philippians, or “A lion, which is strongest among beasts and turns not away from any,” a Proverbs verse. (Kountze High is home to the Lions.)

Ever since, they have been embroiled in the high-profile legal battle those banners sparked. Early in the 2012 season, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the Kountze Independent School District’s superintendent alleging that the district was violating the Constitution by allowing a student group to hold up religious messages at a school-sponsored event. After consulting counsel, the superintendent told the town’s high-school principal to shut down the Bible-verse banners. Some of the girls and their parents decided to sue the district and won a temporary injunction. Since then, the case has been bouncing around the Texas state-court system, mostly on a series of procedural claims. The Texas Supreme Court heard the case and sent it back to the Court of Appeals in January; that court is set to consider the case again any day now.

Meanwhile, almost all of the cheerleaders involved in the case have graduated; only one is still on the high-school squad. The girls are no longer girls; they’re women, many of whom are working near Kountze or going to school in nearby Beaumont or Houston. The case isn’t much a part of their lives anymore, aside from periodic updates on its status and the occasional reporter who calls them up. Some of them still hang out on breaks, getting together in Kountze to commiserate about professors and gossip about who’s getting married.

As typical as their lives may be now, as teens, these girls faced a significant choice: whether or not to take a public stand in defense of their faith and what they saw as their free speech. The irony is that Kountze, Texas, is possibly the least practical place in America to wage a court battle over the boundaries of religious freedom. It’s a small town of roughly 2,100 people, about two-thirds white and almost uniformly Christian. As the cheerleaders and their moms tell it, this community loves its football team; coincidentally, that first fall when the case started, it had one of its best seasons in recent memory. The cheerleaders certainly didn’t face an opposition movement in town. Even the superintendent who stopped the the cheerleaders said he supported the banners’ messages. When the Texas courts finally get around to resolving this case, they’ll mostly be figuring out how to apply legal theory to a narrow set of facts, rather than resolving a dispute between two parties.

Meanwhile, in one sense, the cheerleaders have already won: They believe God is working through them to spread the gospel, and because of this case, a lot of people outside their small town have seen the messages on their banners. Their story is a preview of the culture wars to come in America. More religious diversity means more fights about how one group’s rights should stack up against another’s. Confronted with a challenge to their faith, at least a couple of the cheerleaders seem to have ended up in a place of deeper conviction than before; even as their peers slowly drift away from religion, this experience has helped these young women rearticulate and reaffirm what they believe. If there was ever an idyllic, small-town America where everyone lived in harmony and shared the same values, it doesn’t exist any longer; even places like Kountze aren’t shielded from the conflicts created by the country’s religious shifts. That doesn’t mean, however, that these changes will go uncontested. If anything, conflicts will become more intense, and the various sides more entrenched. After all, the Kountze cheerleaders believe God chose them to take on this challenge. Others who follow in similar conflicts will likely feel the same way.

Michael Starghill Jr.

“Just because the way I grew up, I didn’t know that people really believed that there wasn’t a God.” Kieara Moffett, who goes by Keke, was raised going to Greater Mt. Corinth Missionary Baptist Church in Kountze, although she can’t attend much anymore because she works Sunday shifts at a Mexican restaurant in Silsbee. She lives at home with her mom, Tonya, a special-ed teacher’s aide at Kountze Middle School, and her dad, Craig, a trucker. Moffett drives the half hour into Beaumont most weekdays to go to nursing classes at Lamar University. She described herself as the goof of the cheer squad, which she was part of until her graduation in 2014.

When the court case got started, “I thought it was going to be over in a couple months,” Moffett said. “We’re going to go to the court, we’re going to testify like one time, and then it’s going to be over. He’s going to bang the gavel and it’s all gonna be done.” But, as she soon found out, “It wasn’t like that at all.”

From the very first hearing in the Hardin County courthouse, reporters were all over the case, wanting to interview the girls and their classmates after school, at games, and during practice. National print, television, and radio outlets were eager to cover Kountze, the little town in East Texas where teenaged cheerleaders were taking on a challenge from an atheist organization in the name of faith.

Over the course of the legal proceedings, many of the girls and their moms gave depositions, and a few testified in court. Moffett said she got emotional on the stand; she said she saw some mean comments online about her testimony afterward, but she never personally met anyone who was opposed to putting Bible verses on the banners. The town rallied in support of its girls, and so did the Internet writ large: The “Support Kountze Kids Faith” group on Facebook currently has more than 36,000 members.

Of all the girls on the squad, Moffett said, one, Rebekah Richardson, stepped up most frequently as a representative for the rest of the squad. “We had this thing when we were in school—we called her the mama of the group because she would keep us all in line,” Moffett said. Both reported only minor squabbles on the squad over the press attention—“tension’s to be expected on a cheerleading squad,” Richardson pointed out—although both said the experience was overwhelming, and it was tiresome to get asked the same questions over and over again. “The biggest struggle might have been that there are more parts to me than just the cheerleader things,” Richardson said. “Most people were just interested in the one thing, and it was a tiny part of my life.”

“I think that there’s no point in having faith or being religious if your faith’s in anything other than Jesus.”

But even now, they keep talking to the press. The reason is the same as why they decided to sue the school district to begin with: They believe God has been working through them. “I wasn’t a super Christian or Jesus Jr.,” said Richardson. “Me and my peers—we were just people that God chose to use. And for some reason, some ministries get more attention than others.” She compared the effects of what happened in Kountze to the influence NFL quarterback Tim Tebow had when he wrote references to Bible verses on his cheeks: Many people subsequently looked them up, and John 3:16 was even a top national search term during the 2009 football season. “I think a lot of people probably came in contact with the Bible,” Richardson said. “I think that’s good, because God moves through his words.”

Richardson’s perspective on faith has changed some since she left home and started at the University of Houston, she said: “I’ve learned a lot about diversity, especially religious diversity. My favorite people are the people who are unapologetic about the things that they say and do.”

She spends her Sundays at a relatively new congregation, which she said she admires for its ministries in the surrounding neighborhoods. “I don’t really care about religion that much,” she said. “I think that there’s no point in having faith or being religious if your faith’s in anything other than Jesus.”

Even though Richardson said she loves her town, she has sometimes felt relieved to be out of Kountze. “I’m so blessed by the community. I really am. But sometimes it can be really old when people tell you how good you are all the time,” she said. “I’m just like everybody else, and I was just in the right place at the right time.” She has told a few of her friends at college about the court case but generally avoids explaining it all, she said. As she pointed out, there’s a lot to tell.

That’s not to say she’s ashamed of her squad’s court case or wishes it hadn’t happened. “God just let us watch him work,” she said. “He would have gone after those people anyways because he longs so passionately for people’s hearts. In my mind, I’m thinking that God was like, ‘I love these girls, and I’m going to let them watch me draw those people to me,’ because it’s a blessing to watch God call his children to himself.”

Moffett, too, said the experience has made her trust in God more. “He can do anything, he can bring you out of anything, and you’re going to be okay in the end,” she said. She often prays when she’s struggling with her homework: “I’ll put down my books and just be like, ‘Okay, I need you now.’”

She said her faith growing up was a roller coaster, with various ups and downs. But having her beliefs challenged—and encountering the idea of atheism for the first time—didn’t destabilize her conviction. It strengthened it. “That’s all we have, really, here in Kountze, is religion,” she said. “I realized that the world is bigger than Kountze.”

A yard sign featuring a Bible verse is posted in a yard in Kountze, Texas, in March 2016. (Michael Starghill Jr.)

It turns out there’s a lot of press attention to be found in siding with a small-town cheer squad that’s taking on its school board, and Ted Cruz has never been one to pass that kind of opportunity up. This winter, the Texas senator took a break from the campaign trail to file an amicus brief—along with fellow Texas Senator John Cornyn—on behalf of the Kountze cheerleaders. State Attorney General Ken Paxton did the same, and earlier in the case, then-Governor Rick Perry held a press conference in support of the teens. (They got to go all the way up into the dome of the state-capitol building, Moffett reported.)

Texas’s campaign-trail culture warriors weren’t the only ones to get involved, though. The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation kicked off the case, but the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State have also submitted amici briefs in support of the school district. And, on the other side of the case, the Plano, Texas-based Liberty Institute stepped in to support David Starnes, the cheerleaders’ local lawyer out of Beaumont. There’s no money at stake—the cheerleaders aren’t seeking any monetary damages from the school district, only control over the messages on their banners and reasonable legal fees, should they win. What everyone is after—besides press, and presumably the carriage of justice—is precedent.

“I can never have anticipated a violation this absurd and this overt, and that we would have this kind of fight on our hands,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, the head of the FFRF. “The cheerleaders are trying to say this is free speech, but it ain’t, because they’re selected by the school, and they represent the school.” So far, the organization has been unable to find a person in the community who is willing to bring a countersuit against the cheerleaders, which they’d need in order to have standing, or the right to bring a case. She said FFRF would have preferred to try to the case in federal court under the Establishment Clause. In a somewhat bizarre turn of events—and no doubt a frustrating one for Gaylor—the school district conceded at trial court that although it sees the banners as government speech, it doesn’t maintain that putting Bible verses on those banners necessarily violates the separation of church and state.

“Complaining in Texas is not for sissies.”

“Eventually, some day, there are going to be Kountze cheerleaders or football players who are not fundamentalist Christians, who might be Jewish or not religious, Muslim even, or Hindu, who are going to feel like outsiders in their own school and their own program because of this,” Gaylor said. But, she said, she’d find the situation equally unacceptable if the cheerleaders were willing to paint banners with verses from the Koran, for example. Protecting religious minorities is not the point; in her eyes, this case is part of a global culture war. “We look around the world and see divisiveness and war and terrorism in the name of religion, and it’s always when religion is entangled with the government,” Gaylor said. “If you’re looking at the Islamic State, or if you’re looking at terrorists in an anarchic government, it’s so clear how much bloodshed we get when religion is in the state. Secular government is our salvation, not religion.”

Taking on a case like this doesn’t come without costs. Gaylor claimed that this case, along with another one they pursued in a town a few hours north, prompted so many protesting phone calls that the organization had to change its phone system and block all unknown numbers. “Complaining in Texas is not for sissies,” she said.

Although FFRF sent out 1,186 letters to school districts, sheriff’s offices, and other government bodies last year, it only won or settled five litigated cases, Gaylor said. Right now, it has nine pending lawsuits, with a few more on the way. FFRF places a particular focus on schools. These letters are intended to have exactly the effect they had in Kountze: to scare school districts with the threat of a lawsuit and get them to take action and cease alleged violations of the First Amendment. Hiram Sasser, the lawyer at the Liberty Institute who works with Starnes on the Kountze case, brushed them off. “If you get a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, probably nothing is going to come of it,” he said. “You get a letter from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State [or the ACLU], you need to get serious.”

In Kountze, the American culture war was an import.

The girls I talked to in Kountze didn’t really see themselves as part of a culture war—“No, I don’t think Jesus is a Republican,” Richardson quipped. But a few of the moms saw things differently.

“I had never heard of this Freedom From Religion group out of Wisconsin,” said Coti Matthews, the named plaintiff in the case whose daughter, Macy, was 15 when the initial proceedings began. “Why are they wanting to be free from something they don’t believe in?” she asked. “I just wish they would take their time and resources and efforts and put them into cancer research or something like that instead of bullying… really, only Christians.”

Several of the moms said they’ve started noticing religious-liberty cases more in the years since their own started—perhaps because they’re primed to look for them. “Christians are being silenced,” said Matthews. “If we don’t stand up for our rights, then we will be completely silenced, and you won’t be able to wear a cross necklace or a shirt with a Bible verse on it and go into a public place.”

Keke and Tonya Moffett sit in the Hardin County Courthouse in Kountze, Texas, in March 2016. The original trial over the Bible-verse banners was held here. (Michael Starghill Jr.)

In Kountze, the American culture war was an import—initiated by an out-of-state organization, picked up by politicians with national ambitions, and at least partially funded by advocacy organizations. Small towns like Kountze are the micro-fronts of cultural change, where long-standing ideological battles over free speech and religious exercise are fought over years-long back-and-forths in an excruciatingly slow court system. The Kountze cheerleaders never went one football game without their Bible-verse banners; the original injunction against the school district carried them through junior year, senior year, and off into graduation.

Meanwhile, the case is still mired in legal confusion and technicalities. The cheerleaders’ lawyers contend that since the cheerleaders’ uniforms and supplies aren’t paid for by the school, their speech counts as fully student-led and student-initiated, and thus the school board’s actions have limited their right to religious expression. The school board’s lawyers insist that it tried to come to an agreement with the squad—the district has to have the final say over what would go on the banners, it argued, but it wouldn’t necessarily disallow Bible verses so long as they’re “appropriate.” In a twist, one pair of cheerleaders came forward to cooperate: Ashton and Whitney Jennings, twin sisters, filed a brief with their parents in 2013 alleging that the squad’s lawsuit is “unnecessary, expensive, and county-dividing litigation.”

When the Texas Supreme Court handed down its decision on a procedural issue in the case in January, one of the justices wrote about The Lion King in a concurring opinion, describing “the shadowy place” Mufasa warns Simba never to enter. “My concern is that this case may return to the trial court for a final decision only to reappear on our docket with no clarity as to what this order achieves and what claims are actually live,” the judge wrote. “If that situation arises, the parties and trial court would do well to confront the shadowy place in this litigation and clarify with precision the status of this order and the cheerleaders’ claims.” The school board has lawyers from Dallas pushing them forward, giving advice the board members can’t easily ignore, lest they lose their legal-fees coverage from the Texas Association of School Boards Risk Management Fund. So the district will keep going. As for the cheerleaders, with the money and resources of the Liberty Institute at their backs and faith on their side, they, too, will keep going.

Life in Kountze is mostly back to normal; the girls and their moms might talk about the case every so often, but as far as they’re concerned, they won the case the day the original trial-court judge ruled that they could keep the Bible verses on their banners. The actual people involved in the case seem to care less about the abstract legal precedents at stake than about their ability to go about their lives. And besides, the cheerleaders were never really out for a political victory, even if that’s what their hangers-on wanted. Confronted with a legal challenge to their faith, the cheerleaders saw an opportunity to be part of a conflict that’s bigger than any Texas courtroom.

“Until this world is gone, there will forever be a battle,” said Keke’s mom, Tonya Moffett. “Which is sad, but it’s true.”