RINGGOLD, Ga. — A school board in far northern Georgia upheld a policy Oct. 13 banning cheerleaders from displaying religious banners on the field at high-school football games.
Supporters of the signs, banned Sept. 28 by a superintendent who had been told by a Ringgold, Ga., woman that they violate federal law, rallied outside the first school-board meeting since the decision. They then packed the meeting room with a crowd estimated by local media at between 80 and 100 people strong.
Renzo Wiggins, attorney for Catoosa County Public Schools, told spectators the tradition of having football players at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School burst onto the field through paper signs displaying Bible verses violated the First Amendment’s ban on government endorsement of religion.
“Virtually all of the cases rule that that has the imprimatur of a stamp of approval by the state,” Wiggins said in a video posted online by the Chattanooga Free Press. “Therefore it is prohibited under the (Constitution’s) Establishment Clause.”
Local attorney Matthew Bryan, meanwhile, said the signs were protected under the First Amendment’s clause guaranteeing free speech.
“There are no cases in the federal appellate courts that deal with cheerleader signs, so there have been no cases to say that cheerleader signs violate the Establishment Clause,” Bryan said.
Superintendent Denia Reese said she regretted the decision to remove the banners from the field and restrict them to a “free-speech zone” outside the stadium, but it was her responsibility to protect the school district from a potential lawsuit.
She signed a petition brought to the meeting by audience members, even though the document asked the board to overrule her decision, to symbolize that she personally supports the cheerleaders.
As is common with judgments about implementing policies in public schools in the gray area between the First Amendment’s protections for freedom of speech and religion, however, the dispute may still end up in court.
The Chattanooga newspaper quoted a local activist as saying that several Christian associations have offered free legal representation if the cheerleaders and their families decide to sue.
“Because of the attention that this matter has received, I think that all of us understand what is at stake at this point in time,” Jeremy Jones, a 1992 graduate of Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School and a Republican candidate for Congress, told board members. “And as members, as elected officials, as representatives of our community you are faced with a decision now, and your decision is simply are you going to side with the community and the community values and what we want you to represent, or are you going to side with what will ultimately be the ACLU?”
The Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center says students have the right to express their faith in public schools but not to force a captive audience to participate in religious exercises. If a school-sponsored event allows students a forum to express their religious views, therefore, it also must be open to all kinds of speech — including speech critical of religion or the school.
The center, in partnership with various groups including the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, publishes both parent and teacher guides for religion in public schools.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.)