HOMETOWN U.S.A.: Fort Oglethorpe, Ga.

'Be of good cheer,' Bible told town's cheerleaders

Adults rally behind high schoolers who were told to stop using Bible verses ('Commit to the Lord . . . and your plan will succeed') on banners to inspire the football team.

October 12, 2009|Richard Fausset

This small city's namesake military base was decommissioned after World War II, but over the years Fort Oglethorpe, population 7,000, has retained its utilitarian, base-town ambience.

Public life here unfolds on two busy four-lane thoroughfares clogged with used-car lots, fast-food joints and pawnshops. All that's missing are the troops.

What Fort Oglethorpe does not lack is churches -- enough churches, in an array of Protestant flavors, to deliver salvation to brigades of sinners. The local paper lists 66 Baptist establishments alone crammed into Catoosa County, the smallest county in Georgia.

To drive through downtown Fort Oglethorpe is to feel overwhelmed by marquees barking out in blocky, black letters messages both sacred and secular:


"5 BURGERS FOR 5.95"


So it didn't feel like wires were being crossed when, back around 2003, the cheerleaders at Lakeview Fort Oglethorpe High School began painting Bible verses on the big banners that their football team, the Warriors, would crash through under the Friday-night lights of autumn.

The verses were picked for their gridiron-friendly themes of pluck and pep: from I Corinthians ("Be men of courage; be strong"); from Ezra ("We will support you, so take courage and do it"); from Proverbs ("Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed").

There are a handful of non-Christian kids at LFO High, but for years, no one pointed out any church-state separation issues. Until this season.

On Sept. 23, Donna Jackson, the mother of an LFO High student, called the Catoosa County school superintendent about the signs. Jackson had recently taken a law course at Liberty University, the evangelical school founded by the late Jerry Falwell.

In a statement, Jackson said she wanted the school to be "protected from potential lawsuits" and wanted to head off "community division."

Supt. Denia Reese said Jackson told her the practice was breaking the law "and it needed to be stopped."

A few days later, the school district determined that the signs violated the 1st Amendment.

Reese said she regretted the move -- "I rely on reading the Bible daily," she said -- but the law was the law.

The Anti-Defamation League and other outside observers cheered. "What troubles us so much is when a school essentially says at a football game, 'If you're sitting in the stands and you're not Christian, too bad,' " said ADL Southeast Regional Director Bill Nigut.

In Fort Oglethorpe, however, it's difficult to find anyone who's happy about the decision.

Over at the Big Biscuit Barn (where the sign reads "PRAISE THE LORD AND EAT A BISCUIT"), owner Phyllis Cabe 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."

Cabe's daughter Sami, 15, is a junior varsity cheerleader. The back of the family SUV is painted up in pink letters: "WARRIORS STAND FOR JESUS."

Down the street at Perfect Choice Family Haircutters (marquee: "THIS AIN'T NO CHAIN!!"), hairdresser Denise Yates wondered whether Jackson's call was motivated more by small-town personal grievances than by constitutional issues.

To Yates, the issue was 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."

For the last couple of weeks, churches have held prayer rallies in support of the cheerleaders. Cabe heard that at one of them, about 20 students were saved for Christ.

The games themselves have in part become big protest rallies. At the Oct. 2 game, supporters of the Ridgeland High School Panthers wore Warrior red in solidarity with the LFO cheerleaders.

Around town, the marquees reflect the mood. At Fort Oglethorpe United Methodist, the sign reads "GOD (heart) LFO CHEERLEADERS."

At First Class Auto Sales, owner Jack McLemore, put up the blinking message: "LFO FOR CHRIST."

"There's so much goofy stuff going on in our school systems and stuff," he said. "And then you've got kids not afraid to be Christians -- and you've got adults trying to be a hindrance."

McLemore said he'd like to see someone challenge the school district's decision in court, though it is unclear how much luck such a challenge would have.

Much of it depends on the facts of the case, many of which remain unclear.

Rena Lindevaldsen, an associate law professor at Liberty University, 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.

Meanwhile, another kind of sign has sprouted in the grass in front of the high school -- spelling out the name of Georgia's insurance commissioner, OXENDINE.

John Oxendine, a Republican candidate for governor, is staking out a position as a champion of cultural conservatives. He has said he would use the power of the office to put Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers out of business.

On his campaign signs, next to his name, his supporters have printed and stapled a message custom-tailored for the people of Fort Oglethorpe: "SUPPORTS RELIGIOUS FREEDOM."


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