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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