The banners usually include big paw prints to represent the Panthers’ mascot with phrases like “Go Big Red,” “Be Fearless!” or other encouraging words for the players.
But the banner FHS cheerleaders held up at the Aug. 25 game has started a freedom of speech and religion debate within the community.
The banner read, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” — a popular Bible verse — along with a cross. It was definitely a heavier message for a high school football game and the conversation surrounding the issue heated up when a photo of the banner was posted on social media.
While many people in and outside the community are sure the banner violates the law, others have defended the students’ rights to freedom of speech and religion.
Macon County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin received a letter Sept. 1 from a lawyer with the Freedom From Religion Foundation — a national nonprofit with the mission of protecting the constitutional principle of separation between church and state — regarding the football banner.
Senior Counsel for the foundation Patrick C. Elliott, cited several cases where the courts decided public schools may not advance or endorse religion, which he claims is what occurred when the cheerleaders displayed the banner with the Bible verse.
Stone v. Graham ruled that the Ten Commandments couldn’t be displayed in schools; Lee v. York County ruled that teachers couldn’t display religious messages in the classroom; Ahlquist v. City of Cranston struck down a prayer mural in a high school auditorium and a Supreme Court ruling (Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe) struck down a policy allowing religious messages at football games even when delivered by a student.
“Like the prayers in Santa Fe, religious banners on the field, even if held by students, are also inappropriate and unconstitutional,” Elliott wrote. “Public high school events must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students. The banners alienate those non-Christian students, teachers and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the Christian messages.”
Elliott continued by saying the display of the banner was clearly part of a school-sanctioned cheerleading activity and that the cheerleaders routinely are granted access to the field to display banners and to participate in cheerleading, which is a school extracurricular activity.
“We understand that school cheerleading banners in the past have also included biblical messages. Based on an FHS cheerleading webpage created by the cheerleading coach, it appears that these proselytizing and religious messages are similar to messaged that are promoted by the coach,” he said.
Elliott went on to point to the coach’s personal Shutterfly blog page, which is now private and can’t be publicly viewed.
Despite all the case law cited, many in the community are still defending the cheerleaders’ right to freedom of expression. About 50 people showed up to a recent school board meeting held in Highlands to show their support for the banner. Baldwin said the banner issue was not an item on the school board agenda but that the school system did address the issue.
He said the school system already has a policy in place — school board policy 35-15 — to ensure the protection of personal freedoms while also not infringing on the rights of others.
“The policy basically says that the Macon County School System will remain neutral in regard to religion and that we will follow federal and state laws regarding the U.S. Constitution and freedom of speech,” Baldwin said. “We recognize that the U.S. has a history and an important religious heritage — we respect diverse religious beliefs in the school system.”
It’s a hard tightrope to walk — balancing a student’s freedom of speech rights and also making sure the school system isn’t in violation of the Establishment Clause. According to the school’s policy, if an employee wants to engage in a religious program or activity, it has to be approved by the school principal. If the principal has legal concerns about the activity or program, it is supposed to go up the ladder to Baldwin and then to the school board’s attorney John Henning, Jr.
Cheerleader banners fall into this approval process, but the Aug. 25 banner with a Bible verse did not go through the process and Baldwin and Henning have said it wouldn’t have been approved even if it had.
After getting clarification on the school’s policy, the cheerleaders responded with another banner during the Sept. 29 football game. While Baldwin said the latest banner was approved, it still contained a Christian message — it was just wasn’t as overt as the last one.
This time the banner read, “We are not ashamed. Franklin Panthers 10:33.” All the lettering was black except for the letters M, A and T, which were in red and clearly referenced Matthew 10:33 in the Bible — “but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”
The banner was lifted up by cheerleaders and received loud applause from supporters in the stadium. The cheerleaders also wore shirts that said “Not Ashamed.”
Bonfire Ministries, a nonprofit Christian organization geared to youths, has been a big supporter of the cheerleaders’ banners. Ministry leaders — Andy Jones and Nate Garrett — have been posting videos and comments about the religious banners on their Facebook page.
“We were in Franklin NC this past spring and several of these girls (cheerleaders) attended Bonfire School Release. They got fired up for Jesus being a positive witness in their school and are now being bullied by the Freedom From Religion Foundation,” Garrett posted. “Pray for these girls, this school, and this community that they have the courage to stand up and fight!”
The Bonfire School Release is the ministry’s program that allows public school students to leave campus for a field trip with parent permission to attend a local church or facility where they will see and hear a Christian concert and program.
Baldwin said Henning is working on a response to the Freedom From Foundation letter. While many of the cases cited in the letter involved issues involving school and religion, Baldwin said none of the cases were specific to cheerleader-produced banners. However, he pointed to a recent ruling in Texas where an Appeals Court sided with the cheerleaders who sued the school district over being able to display Bible verses at high school football games. The Ninth Court of Appeals found that the cheerleaders’ choice to display the Bible verses is protected private speech.