Christian cheerleading controversy: Bring it on!

Jesus gets benched from a Georgia pep squad, but that won't stop them from whooping it up for God

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 5, 2009 9:01PM (EDT)

"I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus." It may lack the wallop of “De-fense De-fense! Push 'em back! Take 'em down!” but it’s a classic nevertheless. And for nearly a decade, in the small Georgia town of Fort Ogletorpe, the cheerleaders of the Warriors football team have opened their games with that and similar sentiments -- holding banners of Bible verse for players to burst through at the start of their games. 2,4, 6, 8! “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed!”

This season, however, is different. Just a few weeks into the new school year, a parent alerted the Catoosa County Schools Superintendent that the Warriors were setting themselves up for a lawsuit, and the county reluctantly pulled the plug. In a press statement, Superintendent Denia Reese said, “The practice of the cheerleaders’ use of banners was in violation of the current state of the law as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals.”

The Warriors, however, aren’t so named for nothing.

On Tuesday, five hundred locals attended a rally in support of the cheerleaders and their signs. Speaking to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, cheerleader Taylor Guinn said, “I’m sad and I’m angry about it, because we’re being silenced for what we believe in. It was heartbreaking to know that our school system is just conforming to the nonbelievers … our freedom of speech and freedom of religion is being taken away.” 

There was also the inevitable “We Support the LFO Cheerleaders! LET THEM HAVE THEIR SIGNS BACK!" Facebook campaign, which is already over 12,000 members strong. And Fox news glommed on to the “Cheerleaders censored” story, calling it a “20 year tradition” despite the fact that it began earlier this decade. “It’s not fair” cheerleader Courtney told Fox, “that we can’t spread God’s word.”

The ban has found precious few supporters, even among those who enforced it. Superintendent Reese has said, "It broke my heart to have to tell those girls that they could not display that message on the football field. Personally, I appreciate their expression of their Christian values. However, as superintendent, I have the responsibility of protecting the school district from legal action by groups who do not support their beliefs.” Jerry Ransom, the school's principal, summed up his response by saying, "I hate it."  And Fort Oglethorpe Mayor Ronnie Cobb said, “I’m totally against them doing away with it. If it’s offensive to anyone, let them go watch another football game. Nobody’s forced to come there and nobody’s forced to read the signs.” 

True that, but the presence of the signs open up a whole bunch of issues beyond the mere legalities. Would the Warriors be cool with an opposing team charging through a few lines of Koran or, what the hell, the Iliad? Would they welcome an atheistic herkie jumper on the cheer squad? Or instead could this be considered a case of what conservatives so fondly refer to as indoctrination?

The good Lord, of course, is already an oft-invoked fixture of the sporting world. And the school maintains that no other teams have ever complained about the signs. But no one could seriously argue that the Warriors’ “freedom of religion” is being taken away. What they can’t express with the school’s taxpayer funded art supplies and on the school’s field, they can do on their own. In fact the school has gone out of its way to designate a special area outside the stadium for displaying religious signs, and principal Cobb told the press, “We’re encouraging people to bring signs to hold up in the stands.”

On Friday, students took the cue. They showed up for class sporting shirts  emblazoned with Biblical wisdom. And that evening, a sea of red-clad fans took to the stands, holding signs that said, “Warriors for Christ” and “You took HIM off our SIGN but you will never take HIM out of our HEARTS.” They painted Bible verses on their bodies. Front-running Georgia gubernatorial contender John Oxendine was there as well, Tweeting his heart out in support of “the brave cheerleaders” The team, meanwhile, had to settle for charging through a sign that uninspirationally read, “This is Big Red country.”

Though the Warriors may have to settle for drawing spiritual strength from the stands, the fight isn’t over though. There’s a school board meeting on October 13, and a rally is planned outside the Board of Education building. But God may already have forsaken the Warriors. Friday they lost to Ridgeland High School, 34-0.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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