Community members are rallying around Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School cheerleaders after they were banned from displaying signs with Bible verses urging fans and players to "commit to the Lord" and "take courage and do it."
The banners - the paper ones that football players crash through at the beginning of games - have been common sights in the school's football stadium since 2003, local officials say.
"The cheerleaders are not trying to push a religious cause, to shove religion down someone's throat," said local youth minister Brad Scott, who was LFO High's class president in 2004. "The cheerleaders are just using Scripture to show motivation and inspiration to the players and the fans."
Catoosa County Schools spokeswoman Marissa Brower said a Fort Oglethorpe resident lodged a verbal complaint to Superintendent Denia Reese last week, saying that the display of a Bible verse on the football field is a violation of federal law.
A school system statement released Monday said the message constitutes "a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution for signs with Bible verses to be displayed on the football field."
Mr. Scott said the ban prompted a rally tonight in support of the cheerleaders outside the Chick-fil-A restaurant on Battlefield Parkway so people can show their support for the cheerleaders and their signs.
A Facebook page called "We Support the LFO Cheerleaders! LET THEM HAVE THEIR SIGNS BACK!" also has been established.
Mrs. Reese lends her personal appreciation, if not her official support.
"I regret that we had to ask the LFO cheerleaders to change the signs used in the stadium prior to football games," Mrs. Reese states. "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."
An area outside the stadium has been designated so the signs can be used there, she said.
"I rely on reading the Bible daily, and I would never deny our students the opportunity to express their religious beliefs," she said. "I appreciate that our community has rallied in support of this LFO tradition."
Fort Oglethorpe Mayor Ronnie Cobb vehemently disagrees with the ban and said he'll call on the City Council to support the cheerleaders and their signs.
The signs don't infringe on anyone's religious rights and are good for school spirit, he said.
"I'm totally against them doing away with it," Mr. Cobb said, adding that the cheerleaders' rights are being abused.
The mayor said football coach John Allen made the signs a tradition around 2003 and it has continued ever since.
"If it's offensive to anyone, let them go watch another football game," he said. "Nobody's forced to come there and nobody's forced to read the signs."
Current head football coach Todd Windham said the school system must obey the law, despite everyone's opinions.
"Just my standpoint, I thought the banners were unique," Mr. Windham said. "I really feel for the girls who prepare the banners and I think they really do a good job. They prepare a whole season's worth during the summer and they put in a lot of work on those."
However, officials say the school system's position centers on the trust between students' parents and what the system teaches.
"Families entrust public schools with the education of their children, but condition their trust on the understanding that school activities will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with their religious beliefs," the system's release states. "As a result, the courts prohibit rabbi-led prayers at school sporting events, Wiccan posters in gymnasiums and reading the Quran over the school public announcement system."
Catoosa officials say the U.S. Supreme Court has "ruled that religious activities at high school football games create the 'inescapable conclusion' that the school endorses the religious activity."
Such violations open the system to "lawsuits resulting in injunctions, unnecessary legal costs and damages that have to be paid by the local taxpayers, and possibly the loss of federal funding," according to the statement.
Mr. Scott said the "separation of church and state" has nothing to do with cheerleaders who are not "part of the state" and simply want to offer an inspirational message with signs they made on their own time.
Mr. Scott, who ministers to some of the cheerleaders who attend his church, said the most recent sign he saw quoting from Timothy 1:7 could be considered inspirational in many settings.
"All those words; 'power, love, self-discipline' can be applied to the game, encourage the players and show school spirit," he said.
Local resident and 1992 LFO alum Jeremy Jones called the decision "premature."
"To act on the complaint of one person ... seems premature," Mr. Jones said. "The cheerleaders have raised their own money for this project and have worked hard to make these signs."
Several players were upset by the ruling and decided to hold a team prayer after they took the field last week, Mr. Windham said.
"That was something new, but it was something they wanted to do to show support for the cheerleaders," he said.
Following each game there is a player-led prayer, he said, but under their interpretation of the law, the coaches cannot lead a prayer.
Staff Writer Lyndsey Young contributed to this story.
If you have photos of Bible verses at LFO football games send them to firstname.lastname@example.org