KOUNTZE, Texas — Kountze hasn’t changed much since 2012. A Brookeshire Brothers grocery store sits along the major highway that runs through the small town. It’s walking distance to the Hardin County Courthouse. And nestled just northwest off a farm-to-market road are the middle and high schools, right next to each other. Behind them, the football field which looks very much as it did nearly a decade ago.
The football field is surrounded by a dense forest. The field is still grass, a rarity in a state where football is a religion and most high school players grow up on artificial turf.
The locals will tell you it’s because the school district is poor. But Kountze is very much rich in other ways like pride and history.
It was on that football field in 2012, where high school cheerleaders displayed custom run through banners for the football team.
“The first one was for homecoming,” Ashton Behnken said. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Behnken was on that cheer squad with her twin sister Whitney Peters. To this day, she credits her cousin with coming up with the idea to put biblical verses or Christian messages on the banners.
Behnken recalls the football team winning that game and creating the next banner for an away game. The sign that would bring Kountze to the forefront of national news and pit cheerleaders in a legal fight against their school district.
“By the next week we were told we could not do them anymore,” Behnken said.
Wisconsin based Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a complaint with Kountze ISD on behalf of someone anonymous. Acting on legal advice, then superintendent Kevin Weldon banned the run through banners.
“We didn’t know how the real world looked at God,” Behnken said.
News cameras and eventually, lawyers would flock to Kountze. By September 2012 the cheerleaders would file suit against KISD and eventually be granted a temporary restraining order to continue making the banners.
“We weren’t trying to make a stand for God, I know that sounds bad,” Behnken said “The purpose was this is a better route than let’s kill the other team.”
At the center of the debate was whether the banners violated the establishment clause, but the cheerleaders and their parents argued that the banners were protected free speech because it was the girls’ self-expression with no influence or help from school staff.
The only group the cheerleaders asked according to Ashton and Whitney were the football players.
“We literally ran to two-a-days,” Peters said.
District lawyers argued the cheerleaders were representatives of the school and as such, the banners could be regulated.
In May 2013 the case would go to court where a Hardin County District Court Judge ruled in favor of the girls.
KISD would file an appeal, with the American Civil Liberties Union filing an amicus brief in support of the district. But the case was considered moot because KISD had already changed its policy to allow the banners.
In order to clarify it was the cheerleaders’ constitutional right to display the banners, lawyers for the cheerleaders asked the Texas Supreme Court to review the case and reaffirm the students’ right to free religious expression.
Ted Cruz, John Cornyn, and Ken Paxton would file briefs of their own in support of the cheer squad. In 2016, in an 8 to 0 decision, the Texas Supreme Court decided in favor of the Kountze Cheerleaders sending the case back to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth District in Beaumont.
The appeals court ruled in favor of the girls as well and resulting appeals by the school district would be denied by the Texas Supreme Court in 2018 closing a six-year legal battle.
“We feel like it did take away from certain parts of our lives but it also added a lot of substance to our lives,” Behnken said.
By 2018, Ashton and Whitney had long since graduated. Today, their sister Audrey is a sophomore at Kountze High School and now dons the cheer uniform.
“We tell people we’re the Kountze Cheer Squad and they’re like ‘oh ya’ll are the ones who make the signs?’” Audrey Jennings said.
Audrey shared a picture showing the football run through banner used this past season. It’s black with Kountze Lions in big red letters. In the center is the outline of a lion, its front legs extended as though it’s ready to maul an opponent.
“We would make the banners,” Audrey said. “But it’s hard to get enough people together, I guess we’re lazy.”
The sisters share a laugh but Whitney reiterates that Audrey’s cheer squad has a choice and they choose to focus on competitive cheerleading. Audrey’s squad just returned from Florida recently, placing 7th in the nation.
“If a group comes up and they want to do it, they can. Because we fought for it,” Peters said.
Ashton and Whitney are 25, married and have children of their own now. While the legal battle is behind them they’ll forever be cemented in Texas history as the cheerleaders who fought for their right to free religious expression.