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Cheerleading Coach Finds Prayer Not a Team Sport

Judge says the University of Georgia doesn't have to reinstate a woman fired for requiring girls to participate in religious activities.

December 21, 2004|Jenny Jarvie and Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writers

ATLANTA — A federal judge on Monday denied an appeal for reinstatement by a University of Georgia cheerleading coach accused of mingling religion with team activities. Marilou Braswell was fired in August, according to university officials, for retaliating against a Jewish cheerleader who had complained about pressure to participate in Bible study and team prayers.

The case has drawn attention to sports in Georgia, where coaches often lead players in prayer or worship.

In spring of 2003, the student, Jaclyn Steele, approached authorities with complaints about the cheerleading program. Cheerleaders, she said, were pressured to attend Bible study sessions at the coach's home, led by her husband, a minister. Steele also said Braswell led prayers before sporting events. And Steele complained that the listserv used by cheerleaders was a vehicle for prayer requests.

"She came in our office crying, saying: 'I just can't take this anymore,' " said Deborah Lauter, southeast regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. "She had dealt with this for a long time."

Steele had cheered on the prestigious football squad her freshman year, and then was admitted to less competitive squads during her sophomore and junior years. In August, when Steele was returning for her senior year, university administrators ordered Braswell to reinstate her to the football cheering squad. They also put the coach on probation, warning her to eliminate religious activities.

Braswell called a team meeting, at which she read a statement that Steele's complaints were "completely without merit." She also announced that "the UGA Athletic Department has mandated that Jaclyn Steele be placed, without having to try out, on this squad."

Braswell was fired two weeks later.

In court, Braswell's attorney, J. Hue Henry, argued that a "climate of pervasive religiosity" existed at the university, and that officials had failed to offer coaches any guidelines about the limits of religious activity. Meanwhile, he said, other coaches freely integrated religious beliefs into their programs.

"She may have been stepping over the line, but they were leaping over the line," he said.

In her motion for reinstatement, Braswell argued that by firing her, administrators had infringed on her freedom of speech and her freedom of religion, as well as her 14th Amendment right to due process and equal protection. In a pending civil case against school officials and the University of Georgia Athletic Assn., she argued that the university tolerated and even encouraged religious activity.

Bryan Webb, an attorney representing university administrators and the board of regents, said Braswell's position became untenable when she retaliated against Steele.

"The fact is, Marilou Braswell distinguished herself as an individual who was going to get her back up," he said. "The administration felt that she no longer exercised good judgment."

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas W. Thrash ruled in favor of the university, saying Braswell had "allowed her vehement disagreement to cloud her judgment and put herself in an adversarial position."

The judge said he did not believe Braswell would prove that her constitutional rights had been violated, and issued a warning to university professionals "to be very sensitive to the fact that if they inject their religious beliefs into activities that include students, that is going to be perceived as something that the student participants would be expected to participate in."

Braswell and her attorney said they would push on with their case against the university.

"This means very little," Henry said. "It is not a ruling on the merits of the case. We will proceed with the litigation, and we hope to discover more complaints from football players to support our case."

After the ruling Monday, Braswell said she would continue to defend her coaching style.

"I have always been supportive of coaches practicing faith," Braswell said. "I've never discriminated. I'm confident that the truth will come out."

Braswell also said she missed all her cheerleaders, including Steele. "I care about her. I love her. I always have. I was glad to coach her."

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