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A record number of fans came out on Friday night to see the Ridgeland High School Panthers play the Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe Warriors, in a clash of nearby rivals. Ridgeland won 34-0, posting its third consecutive shutout and handing the Warriors their first home loss of the season.
Normally this kind of shellacking would be seen as a major setback -- particularly at home. But for a good number of Warriors fans in the stands, the game wasn't about supporting the team.
"I was kind of surprised about the flap and the amount of attention it's gotten nation wide," said Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe principal Jerry Ransom. "It's just our little part of the country right here, but so many people from all over have come out to support our community.
"I'm not naïve enough to believe everyone in the school are Christians. I would like them to be because I believe that's what's best, but you can't force anyone to believe what you believe."
The "flap" Ransom is referring to started early last week when Catoosa County Schools Superintendent Denia Reese informed Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe that the district had received a verbal complaint from a parent regarding the Biblical verses its cheerleaders use on the banners the football team runs through before games. Reese told the school it was illegal, and although she personally supported what the girls were doing, they were no longer allowed to use scripture on their signs.
That angered many in the north Georgia community of about 10,000, and a rally supporting the cheerleaders was held soon after the decision became public, drawing hundreds. A Facebook page -- We Support the LFO Cheerleaders! LET THEM HAVE THEIR SIGNS BACK! -- was started by a local youth pastor, and it attracted nearly 12,000 supporters in less than a week.
During the game against Ridgeland, the stands were peppered with signs bearing scripture. Some students painted Bible verses on their bodies and afterward players gathered at midfield to pray. Another rally is expected during Tuesday's school board meeting, as it appears this discussion is far from over.
"I did not think it was a violation of the law because the girls fundraised the money for the signs and it was a completely student-led activity," said Susan Bradley, Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe's cheerleading coach. "We started doing it after the [Sept. 11 terrorist attacks] in New York. The country was pulling together, and a lot of people were turning toward God because generally that's what people do when they're in a crisis. Since then, I have specifically said we can put whatever you want on the signs as long as they are in the spirit of good sportsmanship, but the cheerleaders wanted to keep using scripture."
Football is the most popular sport in the country, and there isn't a sport that has bolder displays of religion -- specifically Christianity -- than football. Perhaps part of the reason is that football is a violent sport, and anytime an injured player can come off the field under his own power it is indeed a moment to be thankful. Another reason is that a fair number of college and, eventually, pro players come from communities like Fort Oglethorpe, where religion is not kept in a box under the bed until Sunday mornings, but instead helps define the identity of the community.
According to a 2008 study by Trinity College, 15 percent of Americans do not identify with a religion. The other 85 percent does, meaning for every Tim Tebow and Kurt Warner detractor, there are plenty of supporters, maybe even an entire town worth of supporters. The Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe cheerleaders may have only planned to offer up nuggets of encouragement, but actually they have inadvertently sparked a conversation everyone -- particularly the 85 percent who say they belong to a religion -- should engage in. When you consider earlier this year, just down the highway in Jonesboro, another cheerleading squad made headlines for a totally different reason, it's hard to find fault with the intentions of the Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe girls. As the residents of Fort Oglethorpe fight for what they believe is their constitutional right, they are also forced to deal with the larger issues the Constitution addresses.
"As a Christian I would not have liked it if they had used verses from the Quran, and if I had known about it, I probably would not have approved of them doing so," Ransom said. "That's the basis of the court's ruling if you allow Christian verses then you have to allow Buddhist, or Jewish and everything else. And to be perfectly honest with you, that would have been a problem here.
"The issue for us is about freedom of expression of Christianity."
Bradley echoed that sentiment.
"I don't feel my freedom to be a Christian is affected by any law," she said. "You cannot be kept from praying.
"But if the girls had decided to use something from the Quran, I feel in our community they would've received negative feedback."
Therein lies the bigger question -- is it freedom of religion for the protestors in Fort Oglethorpe or freedom of their religion? If it's just their religion, how is that constitutional?
Politically correct society teaches us to avoid discussions about politics and religion, an irresponsible philosophy built on avoiding conflict as opposed to seeking truth and its various interpretations. Given that few things impact our day-to-day lives more than politics and religion, to not discuss these things and assume we're tolerant is like building a bridge without knowing where the other side is located. If part of the benefit of being a student-athlete is developing leadership skills and becoming a critical thinker, then going through this experience could prove to be as educational as any class the cheerleaders and football players take this semester.
If the adults can learn something from the brouhaha as well, then all the better.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Page 2. He can be reached at email@example.com.