October 15 2009 by Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press

    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.)

    10/15/2009 4:23:00 AM by Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press | with 3 comments




Comments
Cyrus B. Fletcher
I have observed for over fifty years that far too many well-meaning Christians and churches get into the wrong fight! Of course it violates the establishment clause since the cheerleaders are OFFICIAL representatives of the school. They are not a private club or group. They are coached by the school staff and controlled in their demeanor and actions by the administration. What the Christians in that community and schools should be fighting for is using and maintaining their right to equal access as Christian students to the school campus and facilities. Asking the cheerleaders to do their witnessing for them through feel good banners is not substitute for organized Bible study as a Christian club or group. Get in the right fight and get a life!
10/15/2009 11:58:48 PM

Sue
I do agree with the result, which shows I'm on the side of the constitution, not the ACLU. If the spectators want to hold up the signs - then God bless them, but not people representing the school - and therefore the state. Unfortunately I believe that there would be no tolerance for people holding up signs with Koran verses on them. Does Jeremy Jones support the right for other religions to display signs, or just his own? I fear this is just inciting an escalation.
10/15/2009 11:43:55 AM

Augusta ga hotels
I think this is right decision. We should not mix religious emotion with game.
10/15/2009 10:58:35 AM

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