There was no shortage of religious messages Tuesday night at a rally in support of Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School cheerleaders and their Bible-verse signs that were banned last week from football games.
People attending and speaking at the rally on Barnhardt Circle said the decision to ban the signs was an infringement on their freedom of speech.
"Our Constitution does guarantee that our federal government will not establish a religion. It will also make sure that we are allowed to exercise it without interference from the government," said local youth pastor Jeremy Jones, one of the organizers of the rally that drew more than 500 people.
"That is what we need to fight for folks," Mr. Jones said.
He said the cheerleaders have followed the law and decided to make the signs themselves.
"Now the government is telling them not to do it, and that is stopping our freedom of religion," he said.
State Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette, challenged the crowd to bring religious signs Friday night to put up in an area designated for the displays outside the school's football stadium. And Rep. Neal urged people to display them in the stands as citizens and supporters of the LFO cheerleaders and football team.
"Our Founding Fathers had one thing in mind when they founded this country, and it was a Christian nation built upon the principles of Jesus Christ," Mr. Neal said.
The controversy started after Catoosa County Schools Superintendent Denia Reese took a complaint last week that the signs violated federal law by promoting religion at a school function. Mrs. Reese decided to move the banners off the football field.
"Personally, I appreciate this expression of their Christian values. However, as superintendent I have the responsibility of protecting the school district from legal action by groups who do not support their beliefs," Mrs. Reese stated Monday in a release.
LFO senior cheerleader Taylor Guinn said she understands the superintendent's decision but still feels shock at the loss of the squad's signs.
"I'm sad and I'm angry about it, because we're being silenced for what we believe in," Miss Guinn said. "It was heartbreaking to know that our school system is just conforming to the nonbelievers and letting them have their way when there's so many more people wanting the signs.
"Our freedom of speech and freedom of religion is being taken away," she said.
Miss Guinn said she was touched and impressed by the groundswell of support from the community.
"It's nice to know that we have not only our school and our football team behind us, but we have a whole community behind us," she said. "It's real awesome."
Susan Bradley, one of the cheerleaders' coaches, said the girls decided to use the remaining signs bearing Bible verses in the designated area outside the stadium. They will make a new sign for the football team to run through inside the stadium Friday night, she said.
Ms. Bradley said the use of inspirational signs started after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Some officials say the signs bearing Bible verses became a school tradition a little later in 2003, while others say they started 15 years ago or more.
"It's just kind of a positive message that seems to have been appreciated by the community and by the school," Ms. Bradley said. "Of course, it does represent a religious viewpoint. I think it represents something our school and our community stands on and believes in."
The cheerleaders wanted to make the signs, the football team liked the idea of running through them and fans liked to see it, she said. The cheerleaders didn't use public money or even donations to make the signs, she said.
"It seems like it was something that everybody was in unison about, so there was no problem," she said.
FIRST AMENDMENT FIGHT
Senior Scholar Charles Haynes with the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C., said this is an old First Amendment fight.
"The whole thing goes back to the dividing line the Supreme Court has drawn for many years now between school-sponsored religious speech - which is prohibited by the Establishment Clause - and student-sponsored religious speech, which may be protected by the free speech and free exercise clauses," Mr. Haynes said.
The distinction is in the relationship between a "group" and a "school," he said.
The signs violate the law because the cheerleaders, when they're in uniform at a game, represent the school, he said.
"Even though 'students' are delivering the speech in this case - the cheerleaders are obviously students - they are doing it in their capacity as a school-sponsored group," he said.
"I don't know how a judge would rule, but I would say, from past cases, that the courts would see this as carrying school sponsorship, just like if the school football team came on the field with verses on their shirts," he said.
Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High Principal Jerry Ransom said officials are trying to toe the legal line despite their personal feelings.
Mr. Ransom said he likes to see the community "take a stand on something like this," despite the fact it's not likely the ban will be reversed.
"I think that's good that people are able to speak up," he said. "If I was against it, we would have stopped it a long time ago. We have been in support of (the signs), but we have to adhere to what the Supreme Court and federal courts have ruled on."
John Allen, a former football coach at the school who now coaches at Silverdale Baptist Academy, said he "knew this day was coming."
"I used to get cards and letters from opposing teams telling me what a blessing it was to see our young people and community taking that stand. I never got one complaint," he said. "To me, it's a sign of the times."
Mr. Allen said children now "will have to fight for their faith. We started (the signs) as a reflection of who we were as a community. There are churches on every corner in that community, and this was simply a message of all our faith, hope and belief."
Staff writer Steven Hargis contributed to this story.
CHURCH, STATE AND FREEDOM OF SPEECH
School-sponsored groups, those that are initiated or formed by a school, cannot promote a religious message, said Senior Scholar Charles Haynes, at the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C. Cheerleaders, sports teams or groups such as a student government organization are extensions of the school, he said. 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 they can deliver a public religious message, he said.