By David Waters
Before each football game at Georgia’s Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe high school, cheerleaders hold up cheerleaders giant banners containing Bible verses that might inspire their beloved Warriors. For example, from Phillipians 3:14: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus.” Players burst through the banners as they enter the field.
Late last month, after receiving one complaint, Catoosa County Schools Supt. Denia Reese, an avid Bible reader herself, banned the Bible banners. “Personally, I appreciate this expression of their Christian values,” Reese said in a statement. “However, as superintendent I have the responsibility of protecting the school district from legal action by groups who do not support their beliefs.”
Which is not at all what the complaint was about. Donna Jackson, the mother who complained about the banners, is a devoted Christian and graduate student at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. She told reporters she was merely trying to keep the school from getting into a costly legal battle.
Even Christian football fans should be able to appreciate the constitutional value of keeping public schools and other parts of government out of the preaching business. But separation of church and state, not to mention God and football, can be a hard sell in some places.
After the Bible banners were banned, the Fort Oglethorpe community erupted in righteous indignation and rallied round the young evangelists. “Our Founding Fathers had one thing in mind when they founded this country,” Georgia state Rep. Jay Neal said a crowd at a rally in support of the Bible banners, “and it was a Christian nation built upon the principles of Jesus Christ.”
Fortunately, Neal, a former church pastor, is not a high school history teacher. Keeping zealous government officials and preachers from turning a democracy into a theocracy is what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they decided to keep government out of the church business. That includes the government’s schools and its cheerleaders.
Nevertheless, school officials relented this past week and said cheerleaders and other students would be allowed to display religious messages in a designated area on school grounds — a Free Preach Zone — five first-downs away from the actual field. Onward Christian Warriors.
On one hand, it seems silly to ban high school students from displaying any sort of clean, positive and uplifting messages (Be on your guard; Stand firm in the faith; Be men of courage; Be strong. — I Cor. 16:13). The First Amendment ensures that those same students likely will hear plenty of obscene, profane and demoralizing messages from adults in the stands during the game and from their car stereos after the game.
On the other hand, how many complaints would the superintendent have received from the good and God-fearing people of Fort Oglethorpe, if the school’s cheerleaders were hoisting banners with verses from the Qur’an or even the Book of Mormon.
Some of the Bible banners’ defenders say it’s not about enthusiasm, not evangelism. “The cheerleaders are not trying to push a religious cause, to shove religion down someone’s throat,” local youth minister Brad Scott told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “The cheerleaders are just using Scripture to show motivation and inspiration to the players and the fans.”
If that’s true, there are plenty of motivational and inspirational verses to be found in all holy texts.
“To each is a goal to which Allah turns him; then strive together (as in a race) Towards all that is good.”
— Qur’an, Surah 2:148
“Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines, but it is to the one who endures that the final victory comes.”
“To be worn out is to be renewed.”
— Tao Te Ching
“Discipline brings fame and greatness.”
— Rig Veda
“It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.”
— Vince Lombardi
Football has its own pantheon.