The varsity cheerleaders at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School are getting their 15 minutes in the news media spotlight this week. Unfortunately, much of the sound-bite coverage may serve only to fuel the ignorance and strife over the role of religion in public schools.
In case you missed it, on Sept. 28 school officials in Catoosa County, Ga., reluctantly barred the cheerleaders from holding banners with Bible verses for the football team to burst through when they take the field — a ritual that has been performed religiously for at least six years.
A recent banner read: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).
Cries of “censorship” and demands for “free speech” filled the air as hundreds of local people rallied in support of the biblical banners. Pastors and politicians are calling on local citizens to fight back by standing up for Christ.
“Our Founding Fathers had one thing in mind when they founded this country,” proclaimed State Rep. Jay Neal, “and it was a Christian nation built upon the principles of Jesus Christ.”
Actually, the Founding Fathers had many things in mind when they drew on a variety of sources — Greek, Roman, biblical, Enlightenment — to invent a new nation. The Constitution they wrote establishes a secular state built upon the principles of religious liberty. At the heart of that liberty is freedom from state-imposed religion, especially in our public schools.
The cheerleaders probably didn’t anticipate this church-state debate when they signed up to inspire the players and stir the crowd. From their comments in the news media, it’s clear that they see the banners as student speech, not state religion.
“I’m sad and I’m angry about it, because we’re being silenced for what we believe in,” one of the cheerleaders told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “It was heartbreaking to know that our school system is just conforming to the nonbelievers and letting them have their way when there’s so many more people wanting the signs.”
The cheerleaders might want to re-read their civics textbook. School officials have no choice but to uphold the First Amendment. Even if the vast majority of the community wants the Bible verses, religious freedom is not a popularity contest.
Yes, the cheerleaders are students. But as members of the school’s cheerleading squad, they are part of a school-sponsored group. When they put on their uniforms and cheer at football games, they are representing the public school — not the local church. Under the First Amendment, public schools may not proclaim a religious message at a school-sponsored event, even if the messenger is a student.
I doubt the people of Catoosa County would cry “free speech” if they were transported to a school district where weekly banners proclaimed passages from the Quran, the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad-Gita or some other scripture not their own. In America today, we are all a religious minority somewhere.
The First Amendment solution is to let students and others attending the football games express their religious beliefs from the stands. On Oct. 2, hundreds of football fans in Catoosa County wore T-shirts, held signs, and even painted their bodies with Scriptures proclaiming their faith in Christ. Now that’s what the Constitution means by free speech and free exercise of religion.
As for the cheerleaders, they are free to form a Christian club at the high school, share their beliefs with classmates, read their Scriptures during free time, and in other ways practice their faith as individual students in a public school.
But their cheers for the school should be about school spirit, not the Holy Spirit.
About the author: Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.