(Photo: iStockphoto.com.)

Rah-rah-rah for the Kountze Independent School District and parents. Both sides are claiming victory after a May 8 appeals court ruling in a dispute between the parents of some high school cheerleaders and KISD. Still up for grabs: Who pays attorney fees?

The Ninth Court of Appeals in Beaumont issued its ruling in Kountze ISD v. Coti Matthews, a case that pitted some cheerleaders’ parents against KISD and its former superintendent, Kevin Weldon. Those parents had sued after Weldon issued a decree that prohibited the cheerleaders from including religiously themed messages on the run-through banners used at the beginning of school football games, according to the opinion. The parents have since dismissed all claims against Weldon, noted the court.

In its ruling, the appeals court reversed a trial court’s order in part; the Ninth Court granted KISD’s plea to the jurisdiction and vacated an Oct. 18, 2012, temporary injunction as moot, since the school district already had changed its policy to allow for the banners.

But the Ninth Court sent the case back to the trial court to determine who pays attorney fees.


“As to parents’ claims for attorney fees under the Declaratory Judgment Act, we affirm that portion of the trial court’s order denying Kountze ISD’s plea to the jurisdiction and remand this case to the trial court to determine whether the parties are entitled to attorney fees,” the appeals court wrote.

Both sides claimed that they scored a win. Thomas Brandt, a director in Fanning Harper Martinson Brandt & Kutchin, the Dallas firm that represented the school district, did not immediately return a call seeking comment. But the firm posted a press release on its website announcing Brandt and member Joshua Skinner’s “important appellate victory.”

“Mr. Brandt and Mr. Skinner argued that the case should be dismissed because the school district took prompt action and resolved the controversy. The district court entered an order against the school district, but the Beaumont Court of Appeals reversed that decision, holding that the district court should have dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims,” the release continued.

James Ho, a partner in Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Dallas, who served as counsel to the plaintiffs in the appellate court, said his clients will appeal.

“The district court correctly concluded that the school district violated our religious liberties and granted us relief on that basis. And the court of appeals did not disagree with any of that. But the court of appeals failed to grant us the kind of broad, sustained relief that will protect the rights of not only our clients, but also future students,” he said.

Liberty Institute, which also represents the plaintiffs, issued a release quoting Kelly Shackelford, its president and CEO: “The district court and our state’s leading lawyers and officials … all agree that the school district violated the cheerleaders’ constitutional freedoms and religious liberties, and granted them relief for that reason. The court of appeals did not disagree with any of that. While we are grateful we have won on behalf of these cheerleaders and their right to quote the Bible in their school district, why shouldn’t future cheerleaders in Kountze and other school districts receive the same protection?”