God, Football, Cheerleaders: Room for Religion on the Gridiron?
High school cheerleaders with religious messages spark controversy in Georgia.
FORT OGLETHORPE, Ga., Oct. 1, 2009 — -- For nearly 10 years, the Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe Warriors raced onto their field bursting through cheerleader-held banners like a recent one that took a Bible verse from Proverbs: "Commit to the Lord whatever you do ..."
The Warriors were off to a 4-1 season in northwest Georgia and everyone, it seemed, was a fan of the tradition that started in 2001 after a 9-11 season.
"Our football team is doing great this year," said Chelsea Smith, a student, "and I think the signs encourage them and help get them pumped up for the game."
But today, that tradition abruptly ended -- touching off anger and, perhaps, a creative solution that involves playing football and displaying the banners, just not in the same location.
After the mother of a student raised questions about the banners, the school superintendent decided they were unconstitutional and made the district ripe for a lawsuit.
"It broke my heart to have to tell those girls that they could not display that message on the football field," Catoosa County Schools Superintendent Denia Reese said.
"Personally, I appreciate their expression of their Christian values," she added. "However, as superintendent, I have the responsibility of protecting the school district from legal action by groups who do not support their beliefs."
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.
Almost everyone ABC News spoke to near the school said the banners should have been allowed to stay.
"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."
Back in 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that a Texas high school had to end pre-game prayers over the field's PA system because it amounted to an endorsement of religion.
In this case, the superintendent believed that because the banners were on the school's field it gave the impression the schools were endorsing a religion -- which is not allowed under legal interpretations of the First Amendment.
"I hate it," Jerry Oglethorpe, the school's principal, said of the decision to stop displaying the banners at the games, though he added that he understood the legal reasoning behind the superintendent's decision.