FIRST AMENDMENT PROTECTIONS, LIMITS
School-sponsored groups, those that are initiated or formed by a school, cannot promote a religious message. Cheerleaders, sports teams or groups such as a student government organization are extensions of the school. Clubs or other groups formed at schools by students, or student-sponsored groups, can display any message they like. A group’s relationship to the school is a deciding factor in whether it could deliver a public religious message, said Senior Scholar Charles Haynes at the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C.
FORT OGLETHORPE, Ga. — The Catoosa County Board of Education on Tuesday upheld the ban on the Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School cheerleaders’ Bible verse banners.
The board took a 20-minute recess to consult with its attorney after a pastor, a lawyer, a mother and an activist addressed the board on behalf of the cheerleaders and their banners.
“This is, at heart, a legal issue,” board chairman Don Dycus told the crowd of 80 to 100 people when he returned. “We adopted a resolution as a board unanimously at our Oct. 1 meeting acknowledging that (Superintendent Denia) Reese had made a difficult but the right decision.”
Since the board was not swayed Tuesday by any legal arguments, “that resolution stands,” Mr. Dycus said.
Residents Laurie Ann Laue and Paige Osbourne said they were not surprised but were disappointed.
“I just pray that something else will come of it,” Ms. Laue said.
Ms. Osbourne said “fear” is pushing officials to make their decisions and is the same emotion that drives people “to do nothing.”
When people “do nothing,” they see more invasion of their rights and spiritual health, she said.
Activist Jeremy Jones said several Christian associations have offered free legal representation to the cheerleaders and their families if they decide to pursue the matter.
The dispute arose late last month after Mrs. Reese banned the signs LFO cheerleaders held up on the field for the football team to run through. She took the action after a conversation with LFO parent Donna Jackson about the scriptural references and the possibility they violated federal law.
In the aftermath, school officials held their ground on the ban as Fort Oglethorpe’s Christian community rallied around the cheerleaders and news of the dispute grabbed national attention. A rally a few days after the ban drew more than 1,000 people, many of whom signed petitions submitted to the school board last night.
Mrs. Reese told the crowd she recognized a lot of names on the petitions they submitted to the board.
“I really appreciate the support that our LFO cheerleaders have received during this time,” she said as she held the petitions.
In a gesture of support, Mrs. Reese also signed a petition, despite the fact it called for a reversal of her ban.
She said she was impressed by the community’s response and the cheerleaders’ courage.
“It is the ‘in’ thing for kids to do now,” Mrs. Reese said. “It is the ‘in’ thing for kids to wear their beliefs on their T-shirts and to have signs.”
Board attorney Renzo Wiggins said he contacted a number of legal resources for opinions on the school system’s actions.
“The Christian Law Association called our position in our press release ‘perfect,’” Mr. Wiggins said.
School officials “have not caved in to demands of the minority but instead upheld the principal that protects all religious faiths from entanglement with the government,” he said.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...