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Few issues fascinate me more than the intersection of sports and faith, simply because each elicit such passion, which makes for interesting stories. When these two are paired at the public scholastic level, however, the result is often flammable.

Such is the case at Lakeview Fort Oglethorpe High in northwest Georgia. Prior to each football game, the school’s cheerleaders held up a large paper banner for the players to run through as they race onto the field. This happens at schools all over the country, including the Washington area, and the banner usually depicts some sort of motivational pun targeted at that night’s opponent.

The banner held up each week at LFO High, however, spoke not of an opponent. Rather, it displayed Bible verses, including, “Commit to the Lord, whatever you do, and your plans will succeed.” Such banners had become the norm at LFO since the Sept. 11 attacks, and school principal Jerry Ransom supported them.

But after receiving a complaint about the signs from a community member, Catoosa County schools Superintendent Denia Reese banned the signs. School counsel told Reese that the signs violate federal law because they were displayed on school property during a school event.

Last Friday was LFO’s first game since the ban, and players responded by running onto the field through a banner that read, “This is Big Red Country,” before taking a knee in prayer. In the stands, many fans wore clothing or held signs in support of the cheerleaders. A rally is planned at the Oct. 13 Catoosa County school board meeting.

This is not an argument that will be settled easily or quickly. Proponents of spiritual displays say they are protected under the First Amendment, while the opponents say that when those displays are done on government-owned property, the acts become a state-sponsored endorsement of religion, which is prohibited under the First Amendment.

There is a long history of court intervention in the issue of spirituality on the scholastic playing field. The Supreme Court dealt with pregame prayer in 2000, in
Santa Fe (Tex.) Independent School District vs. Doe,
ruling that a prayer given by a student chosen by his peers through the public address system prior to a high school football game was a violation of the First Amendment. Justice John Paul Stevens, part of the 6-3 majority, wrote, "the delivery of a pre-game prayer has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship." Based upon that opinion, it could be drawn that the cheerleaders’ display of a banner with a Biblical passage could have a coercive effect on members of the team who may not support it.

The most recent challenge came from Marcus Borden, who has coached football at East Brunswick (N.J.) High since 1983. Borden’s team captains have led the team in pre-game prayer throughout his tenure, though he has offered players the choice whether to participate. In recent years, Borden has not spoken during the prayer, but has bowed his head and kneeled while the captains spoke. He was told in 2005 by the East Brunswick school district that the prayer constituted a school-sponsored activity.

Claiming the school system violated his freedom of speech and right to assemble, Borden sued, and the U.S. District Court ruled in his favor in 2006. In April 2008, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third District overturned that decision, and Borden’s appeal to have his case heard by the Supreme Court last year was denied.

High school teams all over the country, including the Washington area, engage in spiritual displays on the field. I would love to hear your thoughts on the issue at Lakeview Fort Oglethorpe, and other instances you’ve either witnessed or read about. Feel free to post replies here, or shoot me an email at goldenbacha@washpost.com if you’d prefer to discuss it just with me.

By Alan Goldenbach  |  October 6, 2009; 12:02 PM ET
Categories:  National issues , The Next Generation  
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