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School's Cheerleaders Can't Use Bible Verses at Football Games

A church-state battle is brewing in a small town in Georgia, where a public school's superintendent has stopped cheerleaders from using banners emblazoned with Bible verses.

Since 2003, cheerleaders at Lakeview Fort Oglethorpe High School have painted a different Bible verse on a huge banner, and players would then burst through the banner as they ran onto the field for a game. No one in the small, heavily Christian town of Fort Oglethorpe objected.

But last month, Donna Jackson, who is the mother of a student at the school, and who had just taken a law school class, called the superintendent. Jackson said the banners were against First Amendment separation of church and state provisions, "and it needed to be stopped." In a statement, Jackson said she wanted the school to be "protected from potential lawsuits" and wanted to head off "community division."

Superintendent Denia Reese reluctantly agreed and ordered the school to stop using the banners. Reese told the Los Angeles Tmes that she regretted the move: "I rely on reading the Bible daily," she said. But the law was the law.

Community reaction is decidedly one sided -- against the superintendent's decision. Phyllis Cabe, resident of the Georgia town, said the signs were "probably" unconstitutional. "But then there's laws and there's what I would call 'heart laws,' " Cabe said. "The Bible tells us we should witness to people if we are Christian... And God tells us to be bold. That is a way of being bold."

To fellow resident Denise Yates, the issue is freedom of speech, not church-state separation. "If they wanted to put a big Buddha doll up there, I'd say let 'em do it," she said. "If that part of the game offends you, go turn around and buy you a Coke."

Rena Lindevaldsen, an associate law professor at Liberty University, where Jackson took her law course, said the cheerleaders might have a strong free speech case if creating the banners was their idea.

However, if teachers and faculty were very involved in drafting the messages, the courts would be more likely to see the banners as being officially sanctioned by the public school, and thus in violation of church-state separation.

While there are signs all over town supporting the cheerleaders, and even parents from opposing high schools showing up at games wearing the colors of Lakeview, no one has launched an official challenge to the ruling.


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