Religious freedom plaintiffs’ claims are moot after ISD altered policy says Beaumont Court of Appeals.

Kountze Independent School District v. Coti Matthews, 09-13-00251-CV (Tex. App. — Beaumont, May 8, 2014).

This is a religious freedom case brought to the court of appeals as an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction.  The parents of several cheerleaders (“Parents”) brought suit after the school prohibited the cheerleaders from including religious-theme messages on the run-through banners. The trial court denied Kountze Independent School District’s (“KISD”) plea to the jurisdiction and granted, in part, the Parent’s motion for summary judgment. The KISD appealed.

The cheerleaders would normally create run-through banners which the team would run through and destroy as it entered the field. In 2012 the squad decided to include biblical messages to provide a positive message of encouragement for the team and fans. Afterwards, the superintendent received a complaint from the Freedom from Religion Foundation complaining about the practice, which promptly resulted in the ban.  The Parents asserted the “ban on banners” violated Chapter 106 (discrimination in governmental programs) and Chapter 110 (TxRFRA). While going through the factual background the court, in a foot note, held that due to the procedural history of the case and evidence presented, the Parents could not maintain a clam for any damages, including nominal. Only prospective relief is permissible.

KISD asserts the Parents’ claims are moot because after the lawsuit was filed, the KISD board initiated legislative proceedings to examine the issue and obtain community information resulting in the passage of a resolution holding the ban on religious banners is not required under the law as long as the messages are displaying fleeting expressions of community sentiment, even if the source is of a religious nature. Under Texas Supreme Court precedent, a challenge to a policy or official action can become moot if the statute, policy, or action is repealed or fundamentally altered. After a lengthy examination of this precedent, the court held the new resolution addressed the Parents’ concerns and rendered the challenge moot. The court determined the alleged wrongful acts are not likely to be repetitious and no collateral consequences are apparent. As a result, the trial court erred in denying the plea. However, under the Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act, the Parents may still be entitled to attorney’s fees since their actions resulted in the new Resolution. The claim of attorney’s fees was therefore remanded.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel: Chief Justice McKeithen, Justice Kreger, and Justice Horton. Memorandum opinion by Justice Kreger. The main attorneys listed for the Parents are Prerak Shah, David W. Starnes, and James Ho.  The main attorneys listed for KISD are Joshua Alan Skinner and Tom Brandt.  A listing of all attorneys and amici can be found on the docket page of the case here.