Monday, October 9, 2017

VICTORY: Kountze Cheerleaders Win at Texas Appeals Court

Source: First Liberty

Washington, D.C. - October 9, 2017 - (The Ponder News) -- In yet another win and precedent for private speech protected by the First Amendment, the Texas Court of Appeals for the Ninth District last week ruled in favor of the Kountze, TX cheerleaders who were banned from including Bible verses on run-through banners at football games. The school district prohibited the banners after receiving a demand letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), and was also supported by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“This is another great victory for the free speech and religious liberty rights of all Texas students,” Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO of First Liberty Institute, stated in a press release. “Hopefully this ruling will bring clarity and closure to this issue for all Texas students and schools.”

“We are pleased that once again religious liberty is vindicated and that cheerleaders across the state of Texas have the right to have religious messages on banners at high school football games,” stated Hiram Sasser, General Counsel to First Liberty. “No school district should be able to censor, ban, or claim ownership of the private religious speech of its students.”


The case began back in 2012, when cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas, decided to paint Bible verses on run-through banners for football games. The Wisconsin-based FFRF, however, caught wind of what the cheerleaders were doing and sent a letter to the school district. The Kountze ISD responded by banning the cheerleaders from painting the verses on the banners.

The cheerleaders decided to stand up for their religious freedom rights. First Liberty and volunteer attorney David Starnes filed a lawsuit on their behalf and won at the district court level.

At that point, the school district appealed, with the ACLU filing a brief in support of Kountze ISD. The school district decided to allow the banners, and the court of appeals declared the case moot. However, the school district still claimed the cheerleaders’ banners to be government speech subject to the school’s censorship.

First Liberty, with Starnes and Jim Ho of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, as lead counsel, appealed the mootness ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. First Liberty asked the Texas Supreme Court to review the case and reaffirm the cheerleaders’ rights.

U.S. Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn filed an amicus brief in support of the cheerleaders, and so did Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.


In January 2016, the Texas Supreme Court ruled  8-0 in favor of the cheerleaders and remanded the case back to the Ninth District. Then, on September 28, 2017, the Ninth District ruled completely in favor of the cheerleaders.

In his opinion, Justice Charles Kreger of the Ninth District wrote that “the Cheerleaders’ speech…is best characterized as the pure private speech of the students.”

“All these cheerleaders have ever wanted is the opportunity to cheer on their classmates with a message of their own choosing and their own faith,” David Starnes stated in the press release issued the same day as the ruling. “Today’s decision provides just that opportunity.”

The ruling also demonstrates the power of legal precedent. The opinion cited many precedents, including two First Liberty cases: Morgan v. Swanson (better known as the Plano “Candy Cane Case” ) and the case of Pounds v. Katy ISD.

In the “Candy Cane Case,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the religious freedom rights of elementary students banned by school officials from giving religiously-themed gifts at Christmastime. Justice Kreger included several quotes from Morgan v. Swanson in his analysis of the Kountze case.


As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas wrote in his famous Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) opinion, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

First Liberty Institute is committed to protecting religious freedom in the sphere of education and has successfully represented clients from elementary school to the university level. For more information about religious liberty in the public schools, download First Liberty’s free Religious Liberty Protection Kit for Students and Teachers.

Trump Instructs DOJ to Protect Religious Freedom

Source: Liberty Counsel

Washington, D.C. - October 9, 2017 - (The Ponder News) -- The Trump administration strongly protected the free exercise of religion by reversing Obama-era policies with new legal guidance issued to the Department of Justice (DOJ) by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The Attorney General issued two memoranda. The first addressed to all administrative agencies and executive departments, identifies 20 key principles of religious liberty. The guidance reminds agencies of their obligations under federal law to protect religious liberty, and summarizes twenty key principles of religious-liberty protections that agencies can use in that effort. It explains that agencies should use these principles to protect religious liberty in all aspects of their work, including as employers, rule-makers, adjudicators, contract- and grant-makers and program administrators.

On specific policies, the guidance states that government may not exclude religious organizations from secular aid programs and the IRS may not enforce the Johnson Amendment which restricts tax-exempt organizations, including churches and religious organizations, from endorsing or opposing candidates for elected office.

Attorney Sessions’ second memorandum, addressed to DOJ components and United States Attorney’s offices, directs the implementation of that guidance within the Department.

The 20 key principles are:

1. The freedom of religion is a fundamental right of paramount importance, expressly protected by federal law.

2. The free exercise of religion includes the right to act or abstain from action in accordance with one's religious beliefs.

3. The freedom of religion extends to persons and organizations.

4. Americans do not give up their freedom of religion by participating in the marketplace, partaking of the public square, or interacting with government.

5. Government may not restrict acts or abstentions because of the beliefs they display.

6. Government may not target religious individuals or entities for special disabilities based on their religion.

7. Government may not target religious individuals or entities through discriminatory enforcement of neutral, generally applicable laws.

8. Government may not officially favor or disfavor particular religious groups.

9. Government may not interfere with the autonomy of a religious organization.

10. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening any aspect of religious observance or practice, unless imposition of that burden on a particular religious adherent satisfies strict scrutiny.

11. RFRA's protection extends not just to individuals, but also to organizations, associations, and at least some for-profit corporations.

12. RFRA does not permit the federal government to second-guess the reasonableness of a
religious belief.

13. A governmental action substantially burdens an exercise of religion under RFRA if it bans an aspect of an adherent's religious observance or practice, compels an act inconsistent with that observance or practice, or substantially pressures the adherent to modify such observance or practice.

14. The strict scrutiny standard applicable to RFRA is exceptionally demanding.

15. RFRA applies even where a religious adherent seeks an exemption from a legal obligation requiring the adherent to confer benefits on third parties.

16. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, prohibits covered employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of their religion.

17. Title VIl's protection extends to discrimination on the basis of religious observance or practice as well as belief, unless the employer cannot reasonably accommodate such observance or practice without undue hardship on the business.

18. The Clinton Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace provide useful examples for private employers of reasonable accommodations for religious observance and practice in the workplace.

19. Religious employers are entitled to employ only persons whose beliefs and conduct are consistent with the employers' religious precepts.

20. As a general matter, the federal government may not condition receipt of a federal grant or contract on the effective relinquishment of a religious organization’s exemptions or attributes of its religious character.

The DOJ earlier this year demonstrated a shift in policy from the Obama administration as it commented on Zarda v. Altitude Express at the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals, which contends that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans gender discrimination, but does not include sexual orientation or gender identity, in the workplace. The guidance today demonstrates further that the DOJ recognizes that religious liberty principles are in fact stalwart even when challenged by special interest groups.

“We commend President Trump for instructing Attorney General Jeff Sessions to send a strong message to the rest of America that religious freedom must be protected,” said Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel. “The President has reversed the Obama-era policies and committed to protecting and promoting the religious freedom upon which this nation was founded. The Department of Justice must now vigorously enforce all Americans’ civil right of free exercise of religious liberty. This is an extremely positive step in the right direction,” said Staver.

Liberty Counsel is an international nonprofit, litigation, education, and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family since 1989, by providing pro bono assistance and representation on these and related topics.

Brady Statement on September 2017 Jobs Report

Source: House Ways and Means Committee

Washington, D.C. - October 9, 2017 - (The Ponder News) -- House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) released the following statement in response to the Labor Department’s September 2017 jobs report:

“It’s clear from this jobs report that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma not only devastated communities in Texas and Florida, they devastated their local economies as well. Record-high flooding, wind gusts, and power outages kept thousands of Americans from going to work and earning a paycheck – money they desperately need to recover from these disasters,

“As Congress and President Trump continue working to help those hurt by recent hurricanes regain their strength, we’re also taking action on transformational tax reform that will grow our economy and help Americans of all walks of life. By passing a budget that paves the way for tax reform, the House took a major step yesterday toward creating more jobs, fairer taxes, and bigger paychecks. In the weeks ahead, the Ways and Means Committee will move forward with pro-growth, pro-middle-class tax reform legislation that Congress will ultimately send to the President’s desk this year, for the first time in 31 years.”

Note: The U.S. Department of Labor reported today that the economy lost 33,000 jobs in September and the unemployment rate was 4.2 percent. The jobs report covers the 50 states and District of Columbia, but not Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands.


Source: House Committee on Oversight and Governmental Reform

Washington, D.C. - October 9, 2017 - (The Ponder News) -- House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings issued the following statement applauding a new website,, launched yesterday by the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE):

“We welcome the release of, a new website that allows the public to access thousands of Inspector General reports across the federal government through a central, searchable repository,” said Gowdy and Cummings. “This site will lead to greater accountability for agencies, more savings to taxpayers, and increased transparency into the IGs’ critical work in identifying and exposing waste, fraud, and abuse throughout the federal government.  We thank CIGIE and the Offices of Inspectors General for their hard work in developing this website and their ongoing efforts on behalf of the American people.” is a central online location where users can access thousands of reports contributed by over sixty Inspectors General across government.  By creating a single repository, enables the public and government officials to more easily access and search IG reports, audits, and recommendations across agencies and programs.

Inspectors General play a critical role in identifying and exposing waste, fraud, and abuse throughout the federal government.

The website can be reached by clicking here

Chairman Diane Black Praises Passage of Budget in the House

Source: House Budget Committee

Washington, D.C. - October 9, 2017 - (The Ponder News) -- House Budget Committee Chairman Diane Black issued the following statement after the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.Con.Res. 71, the fiscal year 2018 budget resolution—Building a Better America.

“I am proud that the House supported a budget that reflects responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars and reassures the American people that we are committed to effective governing. It is a plan that achieves balance in 10 years, strengthens our military, promotes economic growth and unlocks pro-growth tax reform. While passage of this budget is just one of several steps toward priorities becoming realities, meaningful and lasting reforms cannot be achieved by skipping steps in the process. Today, I am pleased that members of the House continued doing our part by passing a plan for ensuring a bright and better future for generations to come.

Bump Stocks

Washington, D.C. - October 9, 2017 - (The Ponder News) -- Executive Director of Gun Owners of America (GOA) Erich Pratt issued the following statement on GOA's position on bump stocks:

"Gun Owners of America opposes a ban on bump stocks. Bump stocks were approved by the ATF during the Obama administration to help gun owners with disabilities fire their weapons.  Any type of ban will be ignored by criminals and only serve to disarm honest citizens.  Perhaps that’s why 91 percent of police believe a so-called “assault weapons” ban will have no effect or a negative effect on crime.  And given that 95 percent of cops think that a ban on large capacity magazines would be ineffective in reducing violent crime, it’s hard to imagine they would regard bump stocks any differently.

It's sad to see some Republicans quickly call for a vote on gun control, while delaying a vote on concealed carry reciprocity, H.R. 38. This is bipartisan legislation which will protect concealed carriers while they travel and which has been cosponsored by 212 law makers. If law makers want a vote on bump stocks, they should vote on reciprocity as well."

Many have called the Illinois State Rifle Association office regarding “bump stocks” and other such devices.  These devices were approved by the BATFE under President Obama and Attorney General Holder.  It is the Illinois State Rifle Association’s suggestion that the BATFE review their ruling, open up a comment period and re-address their ruling.

In response to the senseless attack in Las Vegas, the Second Amendment Foundation and Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms have issued the following statement:

“The Second Amendment Foundation and Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms support a productive dialogue concerning “bump stocks,” National Concealed Carry Reciprocity and the proposed Hearing Protection Act.

“We recognize that banning firearms accessories is not a solution to violent crime.”

Secretary Shulkin’s taxpayer-funded European vacation

Source: American Federation of Government Employees

American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr. released the following statement in response to a Washington Post report regarding Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin’s travel expenses:

“Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin should be ashamed of himself for traveling to Europe with his wife at taxpayers’ expense – especially as the VA grapples with funding shortfalls that undermine veterans’ care.

“Mr. Shulkin needs to explain to veterans who are waiting for doctors’ appointments how attending a Wimbledon tennis match, touring Westminster Abbey, and cruising along the River Thames with his wife helped them get treated faster.

“He also needs to explain to VA employees, many of whom are veterans, why he ordered a crackdown on their travel just two weeks before going on his taxpayer-funded European vacation. With 49,000 staffing vacancies to fill, our nation’s veterans and the Veterans Affairs staff deserve to know how Secretary Shulkin intends on improving services at the VA.

“President Trump came to Washington with a promise to drain the swamp. He needs to start by holding his own Cabinet officials accountable to the public they serve.”