Now, a month later, the new policy has produced an unexpected result: more biblical verses than ever at football games, displayed not by cheerleaders but by fans sitting in the stands.
Startled and dismayed by the district’s policy, this town of 9,600 people has taken up the cause — and the signs — of the cheerleaders. Calling themselves Warriors for Christ, a twist on the school’s Warriors nickname, fans have held rallies at churches and a local polo field and sold more than 1,600 T-shirts bearing passages from Deuteronomy and Timothy.
On game nights, the stadium of the school, Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High, just south of Chattanooga, is dotted with signs reading, “You Can’t Silence Us” and “Living Faith Outloud,” along with biblical verses. Even Caleb Wickersham, a 17-year-old atheist from nearby southern Tennessee, acknowledges that fans are exercising a legal right to free speech. “From an atheist’s standpoint, it’s frustrating because I don’t want more religion in my face,” Caleb said. “But it’s their constitutional right.”
The 15 cheerleaders on the varsity squad, most of them Baptist, had painted their banners with New Testament verses like “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus” (Philippians) and “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline” (II Timothy).
But after the school was cautioned about the risk of a constitutional challenge, the school board struck down the banners, drawing a flurry of attention from news organizations and even a reference on “Saturday Night Live.” The parent who contacted the school, Donna Jackson, is a graduate student at Liberty University, the evangelical Virginia institution founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Ms. Jackson, who had taken a law class, says she was just trying to protect the school from litigation.
Federal courts have ruled that public school students are free to promote their faith, but not in school-sponsored clubs. With salaried coaches and the school’s name on their uniforms, the cheerleaders would most likely be considered school-sponsored, said the district’s lawyers.
Constitutional experts agree. Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington, said the cheerleaders could display biblical verses only if they were a student-led club and were not performing at a school-sponsored event.
But the backlash demonstrates the difficulty of separating church and state in communities, especially in the South, where many prefer the two merged.
Most of those in and around Fort Oglethorpe seem to disagree with the policy. More than 16,000 people have joined a Facebook group in support of the cheerleaders, while only 77 have joined a group favoring the ban.
A leading Republican candidate for governor, Insurance Commissioner John W. Oxendine, drove to the school to endorse the cheerleaders’ cause, and a Tennessee newspaper cartoonist depicted them painting a sign that said “Go Big Red!” with the G, O and D capitalized.
“It’s the Bible Belt,” said Jeff Porter, the owner of C & C Custom Tees, which has sold 800 shirts supporting the cheerleaders. “I understand that the majority doesn’t rule, but it seems unfair that one lady could complain and cause all of this to stop.”
Kaitlynn Corley, an 18-year-old cheerleader, said the ban had put a damper on her senior year, preventing her from singing “Jesus Loves You” with other fans. The new banners display secular messages like “We Love Our Seniors” and “Prepare, Compete, Finish” that she finds less inspirational.
“I’m a Christian, and I think it’s really neat to be part of a program that wasn’t afraid to express its beliefs,” Kaitlynn said. “We are representatives of the school, but we’re also individuals, and we have the right to believe whatever religion we want.”
Many Christians, however, said that in losing a battle, they had won a war. There are now more displays of religious belief at the games, and Tracey Reed, Kaitlynn’s mother, said students “who may never have even heard these Scriptures are thinking about them and maybe going home and looking them up in their Bibles.”
Before a game last Thursday, the football team prayed on the 50-yard line, huddling around the captain, Zack Lewis. “In Jesus's name!” he shouted as players in red helmets surged out of the huddle. It was a voluntary prayer, led by students, but all the players took part.
“God has prevailed on this issue,” said Brad Scott, a local youth minister. “It’s caused Christians who were silent before to stand up for what they believe in — to come to rallies, to meetings, to find out what’s happening in their government.”
Mr. Haynes, of the First Amendment Center, said the protesters had inadvertently served as actors in the proper workings of the First Amendment: they have failed to reverse the ban, but they have promoted Christianity within constitutional boundaries.
“They’ve just proven that Jefferson and Madison got it right,” he said. “It’s a reminder of the difference between religion that’s state-sponsored and religion that is vital, voluntary and robust.”
Many of the Warriors for Christ have stopped even asking the school board to reverse its decision. They understand the risks of a lawsuit, especially in a cash-short county. But the biblical quotations are seemingly here to stay.
“As far as I’m concerned, they’ll be with us at every game,” said Mark Humphrey, the father of a cheerleader. “Home or away.”