Sacking God on high school gridiron

Here’s a story pretty much pre-packaged for broadcast and cable news. Fortunately, it’s found its way onto the AP wire and a few religion blogs, too.

It’s a scene probably included in every movie about high school football. I think I even saw it in “Bring It On.” (Yes, I saw “Bring It On” — several times.) The team metaphorically bursts onto the field before a stadium filled with cheering fans by physically bursting through a paper banner. Most of the banners I remember seeing carried the team name and some inspiring message like “Go, Cougars, Go!”

But they do things differently along the Georgia-Tennessee border. There the cheerleaders wanted to pass on some holy power. Their signs, as reported by ABC News, reflected it:

For nearly 10 years, the Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe Warriors raced onto their field bursting through cheerleader-held banners like a recent one that took a Bible verse from Proverbs: “Commit to the Lord whatever you do …”

The Warriors were off to a 4-1 season in northwest Georgia and everyone, it seemed, was a fan of the tradition that started in 2001 after a 9-11 season.

“Our football team is doing great this year,” said Chelsea Smith, a student, “and I think the signs encourage them and help get them pumped up for the game.”

But today, that tradition abruptly ended — touching off anger and, perhaps, a creative solution that involves playing football and displaying the banners, just not in the same location.

After the mother of a student raised questions about the banners, the school superintendent decided they were unconstitutional and made the district ripe for a lawsuit.

No doubting that. It’s not a matter of why now a parent has come forward. One has, and that’s enough to put the kibosh on such a clear demonstration of religion in the public square.

I feel like reporters often struggle with these stories, which represent a challenging combination of religious tradition and legal interpretation. Additionally, I think many reporters are uncomfortable with any restriction of free speech, even if that speech conflicts with another First Amendment protection. And that has to go double for reporters in the Bible Belt:

The Chattanooga Times Free Press, which has owned the story, followed Friday’s football game with a great piece Saturday that mixed color with context:

The student section was filled with “Jesus” painted on body’s and faces and Bible verses draped over parts of the stands. At least a third of the crowd had on “Warriors for Christ” shirts that the cheerleaders sold all week and handed out before the game.

“I believe it’s more about people supporting their beliefs,” LFO principal Jerry Ransom said. “I think it’s brought (the community) together.”

While Mr. Ransom said he doesn’t think the school board could have handled the issue any differently, he thinks the cheerleading team has been “awesome” in handling the situation.

Through the sea of supporters were two opponents who had handmade shirts that said “Protect the Law.”

Steven Harris and Julie Smith, both seniors at LFO, made the shirts to show their support with Mrs. Reese’s decision to ban the signs and support the law that separates church from state.

“I just want people to know there are other beliefs,” Mr. Harris said. “This isn’t a Christian school.”

The sign issue began when …

Yes, this is the Bible Belt, but these stories, especially those from the local Times Free Press, do a good job of representing both sides in a controversially with historic roots. (Think Engel v. Vitale, the censoring of valedictory speeches mentioning God and, as tmatt mentioned last week, the covering up of a wooden cross in the Mojave Desert.)

I found no national newspapers on this story, but the Associated Press filed a dispatch.

The AP also made a misplaced reference to the Anti-Defamation League as a “human rights group.” That’s a fair description, one the ADL — whose creed is “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all” — would agree with. But in sending a letter to the school district superintendent commending the ban, the organization’s regional office was acting more like the ACLU than Jewish World Watch. And by referring to them, in that context, as a human rights group without mentioning the organization’s additional activities, it gives the impression that allowing Christianity in the public square is a human-rights violation.

Going farther, there’s a national story here that seems to be worth some attention: There seem to be a number of these very public battles against public displays of religion — another one against city council prayers — all occurring at once. Whether they will converge or have conflicting outcomes remains to be seen. But it would be interesting to see more coverage of what is behind the spike.

Could it be all those new nones? I’ve been skeptical about whether the atheist “coming out” party is really the political movement that secular lobbyists claim it is. But I have been wrong before.

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  • Jerry

    ADL — whose creed is “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all” — would agree with. But in sending a letter to the school district superintendent commending the ban, the organization’s regional office was acting more like the ACLU than Jewish World Watch

    That is an interesting part of this story because it illustrates how one religious group can feel its rights infringed by another religion and thus ask for “fair treatment for all” religions not just the dominant one.

  • Lauree

    I just love the fact that the mom who reported this as a violation of law was a Liberty University student….

  • Bill

    I realize this is beside the point, but they started after a 9-11 season? A 20 game high school football season?!

  • http://symboldictionary.nety Jennifer Emick

    I don’t think these cases are anything new. Having more like-minded support might be an impetus for some people to speak up where they may not have before (being the only person willing to speak against an unconstitutional prayer policy in the bible belt can lead to serious harassment of even physical danger)

    I think the point that often gets missed is there is that all of these instances are *not* equal. In the case of the football team, it was clearly unconstitutional.

    Disallowing religious content of student speech/clothing is also unconstitutional. The religious sentiment itself is not the issue at all, the issue is when that speech is sanctioned by a government authority. Put a Nietsche quote on that paper banner and watch how quickly those Christian parents understand the finer points of constitutional law…

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    A Nietzsche quote would most certainly be protected by the Constitution.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It is amazing how our country cowers at fear of lawsuits-as did this school superintendent. In the health debate I saw one estimate that it costs $800-$1,000 dollars for each American for malpractice lawsuit coverage for doctors.
    Yet in all the hot controversy on the health bills the media provides almost no coverage of the issue of Tort reform, the ins and outs of it, etc. and the stranglehold lawyers have on our laws. I have repeatedly seen Congressmen and senators identified by religion, military background, etc. but never by the word “Lawyer.” I would like to see interviews with politicians on Tort reform, where they stand, and whether they are lawyers. I read and listen to a lot of news and all I encounter is a passing reference or two reporting that some want Tort reform–BUT absolutely nothing in depth or of headline notice.It is almost as if the MSM were in the bag for the lawyers to keep Americans from realizing just how many of our laws are written and passed by people where there are frequently unreported massive conflicts of interest.

  • Jerry

    Since Deacon Bresnahan brought up the issue:

    In both 2004 and 2006, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concluded that limiting medical malpractice claims would have little effect on the overall costs of health care. cited and Rather than cite “I saw one estimate”, it’s more helpful to reference actual non-partisan numbers.

  • http://symboldictionary.nety Jennifer Emick

    Brad, I was alluding to those Nietsche quotes that specifically address religion, which would not be. Assumed that was obvious.

  • Lymis

    Whether or not a Nietsche quote (depending on content) would survive muster, I think it would be more illustrative of the point if the school, (acting as it does for the government) had mandated specifically religious language that was of another religious tradition.

    “Goddess grant we win” or “Do all in praise of Allah!” or such, and I guarantee you, the same parents claiming that the language is meaningless or harmless would be up in the principal’s face demanding a change.

    I think that was the real point.

  • carl

    The problem with the Naked Public Square is that it is a dead Public Square. It contains nothing but the pointless interactions of pointless organisms who exist today and die tomorrow – forgotten and unlamented, along with all their sorrows and sufferings. Whereupon other pointless organisms will engage in pointless displays like moments of silence that serve only to highlight their own impotence in the face of that which they remember. The Naked Public Square is a cold and forbidding place.

    Yet it has become an article of faith that the Naked Public Square is a necessity to prevent religious faction. A neutral place must be created where all religions can meet and interact. Secularism is presumed to be that place of intersection but in fact secularism has its own metaphysics, and becomes itself the religion of the public square. In the guise of neutrality, every public statement reflects the belief of the secularist that there is no God. His worldview is perfectly represented. It is really the Secular Public Square, and it says relentlessy “God does not exist here.” This is the conflict that is never reported. It is not a conflict of neutrality over against religious preference. It is a conflict of non-theistic religion seeking to displace theistic religion. That is what secularists seek, and that is what people react against when their traditions and rituals are banned for religious content.

    Too often this issue is framed as Christians seeking a privileged place in the Public Square. It could just as easily be framed as Secularists seeking a privileged place in the Public Square, and all in the name of religious diversity. Secularists are not seeking an equal place for all religions in the Public Square. They are seeking no place for any religion in the Public Square save only the materialist religion of man. They say “God is not allowed here lest any man be troubled.” But what they mean is “God is not allowed here, so that I may be free of god delusions of any kind. Believe any nonsense you like in private. But here, we presume that what you believe is meaningless.” How shocking that people would be offended, and push back.


  • carl

    I see I dropped an important word in the above post. That should have been “eternally forgotten and unlamented.”


  • Dave

    Brad: The spike in protests of unconstitutional public displays of religion may have nothing to do with the increase in “nones” or the greater pugnacity of atheists. It is perfectly possible to be a member of a minority religion who objects to an unconstitutional public display which reinforces the dominance of the majority Christian faith.

    carl, you call secularism a religion. As Abraham Lincoln once said, if you call a lamb’s tail a leg, it still has only four legs, because a tail is a tail whatever you call it.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Of course not, Dave. But wouldn’t you like to see the broader story demystified?

  • Dave

    I’m not sure what you mean by demystified but I would indeed like to know what’s behind the spike — if there is one — in this kind of church/state complaint. My caveat is because statistically there may be fluctuations in a stream of similar events that don’t actually mean anything. Though I suspect that this pattern is chaotic rather than random, ie, that there is a subtle underlying pattern.

  • Jeff

    Bill: If you watch the video, the principal says that he thinks the tradition of verses on banners began “in 2001, right after 9/11.” Looks to me like another case of a writer trying to make sense of something he doesn’t really understand (that is, you were right to question a 20-game season). Believe me, as a sports/religion writer, I see this in both arenas all the time.

  • Leigh Williams

    It is perfectly possible to be a member of a minority religion who objects to an unconstitutional public display which reinforces the dominance of the majority Christian faith.

    It’s also perfectly possible to be a member of the majority religion who objects to unconstitutional public displays — as indeed I am.

    Not to mention the unsuitability of writing Scripture on a banner that’s meant to be torn apart, decorating an exhibition of mock-warfare involving physical violence.

  • Kirk

    I am making this comment late, with the realization that there is every possibility that no one will read my remarks. Nevertheless…

    I would suggest that these banners with Bible verses cropped up in 2001 after the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Santa Fe I.S.D. v. Doe, in which the Supreme Court pretty clearly decided that public prayer–even voluntarily led student prayer–offered up before a football game violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Hence, I would suspect that the students (or parents) back in 2001 started writing verses on banners when they were not permitted to lead prayers before games.

    At my own town here in East Texas, the local high school stopped saying prayers before games around about 2001 in favor of a moment of silence. However, the prayers have started again now, and I don’t know whether the school board (or powers that be) have found an interpretation of the opinion that supports the right to have prayers, or whether they are just flaunting the law. I suspect the latter, and that bothers me. As a Christian, my faith tells me that I should obey the law.