FORT OGLETHORPE, Ga. — The woman who sparked a controversy over signs bearing Bible verses at a north Georgia high school’s football games says she was not offended by the signs and was surprised when the district superintendent banned them.
Catoosa County Public Schools ruled Sept. 28 that the practice of football players at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School bursting onto the field through paper banners bearing motivational Bible verses opened the district to lawsuits and must be stopped.
At the Oct. 2 home varsity football game, the team took the field through a banner reading “This is Big Red Country.” Players marched across the field and dropped to one knee in a circle of prayer.
Though banned from the playing field, religious messages filled the stands. Students wrote scripture verses on their chests with body paint, wore T-shirts printed with “Warriors for Christ” and held banners like “You took him off our sign but you can’t take him out of our hearts.”
The school board’s decision that the religious banners violated the Constitution’s ban on establishment of religion has galvanized the 900-member student body and community. Hundreds protested the ban in a rally at a public park Sept. 30.
Fueling the outrage was the report that the tradition started shortly after the 9/11 attacks had to end because of a single complaint.
“It’s just bizarre that we live at a time where a single complaint from one hypersensitive person can trample the right to free speech for an entire community,” Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association said in a statement. “When the Bible gets banned in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, you know that religious liberty is in big trouble in America.”
The outcry prompted the alleged complainant — Donna Jackson of nearby Ringgold, Ga. — to come forward with her side of the story.
“I actually was the one that called the Catoosa county school system,” she said on Ringgold’s WAAK 94.7 FM Thursday night. “I was wanting to ensure that a federal law was not being broken by our school system who works very hard at what they do.”
Jackson issued a press release admitting that she made a call to Catoosa County school superintendent Denia Reese about cheerleader signs but denying that she was complaining about them or threatening to sue.
She said she took a class last summer at Liberty University, where she is studying toward a doctorate in education, on school law, and it prompted her concern that the cheerleader signs be done in a way to avoid a federal lawsuit.
“I never used the word ‘complain,’ ‘complaint,’ ‘grievance’ or any other word similar in meaning,” Jackson explained. “I expressed concern that teachers could be subject to lawsuits or losing their jobs. My concern was a direct result of the class I took this summer” at the conservative Baptist school.
Jackson said she “neither intended nor expected” the superintendent to “take the drastic action that ensued.” The school district responded by releasing a memo documenting a Sept. 23 phone conversation where Jackson reportedly informed the superintendent she was breaking the law and it needed to stop.
After the telephone conversation, Superintendent Reese said Jackson filed an open-records request for financial documentation for purchase of supplies to make the banners. The school system sought legal advice, she said, which confirmed the cheerleaders’ use of the banners would likely constitute a violation of the First Amendment as currently interpreted by the Supreme Court.
In her initial statement, Reese said she reads the Bible daily and regrets the cheerleaders cannot display their signs in the football stadium without violating the First Amendment. She said students could still display the signs in a designated area outside the stadium.
Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, said there is no “bright legal line” between what courts see as voluntary prayer by students and a public school endorsing a religion.
“The cheerleaders were carrying out their duties as the school’s cheerleaders by holding the banners as part of their cheerleading,” Haynes said. “So I think a court would likely rule that they are sending a message of school endorsement of a religious message by putting up signs with scriptural quotes at a school-sponsored event.”
Though support for the cheerleaders has been overwhelming, it is not unanimous. The Chattanooga Times-Free Press interviewed two students at Friday’s game standing out in the sea of supporters wearing hand-lettered shirts that said “Protect the Law.”
“I just want people to know there are other beliefs,” senior Steven Harris told the newspaper. “This isn’t a Christian school.”
Opposition to the district policy transcended even team rivalry. Across the field from the Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe bench, the visiting Ridgeland Panthers from Rossville, Ga., draped signs on a fence reading “We support your team” and “We believe.”
Unfortunately for the Warriors, that support didn’t translate to the Panthers giving up touchdowns. Ridgeland won the game 34-0.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.)