Georgia High School Bars Religious Banners at Football Games

Photo: School Prohibits Religious Banners at Football Games: Students, Community Disappointed by Decision to Bar Biblical Signs at Games

The Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School football team took to the field for Friday night's game with a show of solidarity, bursting through a banner held by the school's cheerleaders as they always do, only this banner had no biblical verse on it.

The Warriors used to begin each home game by crashing through a gigantic banner bearing an inspirational quotation from the Bible, such as "In God I have put my trust. I shall not be afraid."

Staring shortly after Sept. 11, 2001 to boost community spirit, it had become a popular tradition at this school tucked away in the Northwestern corner of Georgia. That tradition was abruptly ended last week after the parent of one of the football players told the superintendent someone might file a lawsuit over it. The superintendent agreed.

"It broke my heart to have to tell those girls that they could not display that message on the football field. It was hard to be the bearer of bad news. This is the law, and we will follow the law," said Denia Reese, superintendent for Catoosa County public schools.

Religious banners on the fields may be banned, but in the stands, there were signs of support and, on some, messages of defiance. Students brought hand-made stands bearing statements such as "You can take Him off the field, but you'll never take Him out of our hearts," while some students came to the game wearing body paint with religious themes. The players themselves paused for a pre-game prayer on the sidelines.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that a pre-game prayer over the public address system at a high school in Texas was unconstitutional because it amounted to an endorsement of religion, a violation of the First Amendment which prohibits any law "respecting an establishment of religion."

The school's superintendent believes that because the banners were on the school's field and held by the cheerleaders for the players to run through, it gave the impression the school was endorsing a religion. The signs and messages from those in the stands are acceptable because they're viewed as personal expressions of faith.

Mayor Says Kids Never Intended to Offend Anyone

Donna Jackson, the mother who filed the complaint, said she never complained about the signs, but was only looking out for the school district and the possibility that it or its personnel could be sued.

"I did call the superintendent to express concern that the cheerleaders' sign be done in such a way that all involved were within the ever-changing and very confusing lines drawn by the federal courts about such things," she said in a text statement.

"The students and the cheerleaders, the football players, we all -- as a student organization -- want to do it," said Zack Lewis, a Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe football player. "Not just the teachers, but the students and the whole community."

Students and faculty aren't the only ones disappointed by the school board's decision. Community members are also speaking out over the banners no longer being allowed at the high school football games. On "Good Morning America Weekend," Fort Oglethorpe Mayor Ronnie Cobb expressed his support for the students who brought the religious message into the stands Friday night.

"I applaud them, support them and the entire community and most of the nation now is behind them," he said.

Rob Boston, of the group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, counters, "These cheerleaders with their religious banners that quote from the Bible are definitely in violation of that long-standing rule. My advice to them would be if you want to promote religious, do that at your church, not in your public school."

Playing without their traditional banner, the Warriors ended up losing the game by a score of 34 to zero. The game may have ended in disappointment for sports fans, but Mayor Cobb insists the community still came out on top.

"I would love to see in the future the possibility of banners coming back," he said. "I don't want it to be offensive to anyone, and these kids don't either. It wasn't their intent to start with. It's a show of solidarity of the community."

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