Can one parent’s complaint put an end to the student athletes’ display of Biblical verses at a school sporting event? That’s exactly what occurred in the small, deeply religious town of Fort Oglethorp, Georgia. Following the September 11th terrorist attacks, the Warriors of the Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School football team decided to begin their game by running through cheerleader banners decorated with Bible verses.

This continued until October 2009 when one parent complained. Fearing a lawsuit, the school superintendent banned the banners, claiming they violated the First Amendment to the US Constitution. The ban was applauded by organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, but galvanized the largely religious community, which responded by exercising their own First Amendment right to freedom of expression.

Who’s Right?

Students showed up in school the day of the game wearing t-shirts reading “Warriors for Christ” and others painted religious messages on their cars. People packed the stadium for the Friday night game, displaying religious messages on signs, and some even painted Bible verses on their bare chests.

In another case, a parent challenged the school board’s decision to ban Christmas carols and other religious music at a school-sponsored event. In November, after more than five years of litigation, a US Court of Appeals upheld the school board’s ban.

The Court rejected the parent’s argument that the school board’s action amounted to “hostility toward religion in violation of the Establishment Clause,” stating that “neutrality towards religion is quite distinct from hostility towards it.” See Stratechuk v. Bd. of Educ., 587 F.3d 597 (3d Cir. N.J. 2009)

These cases represent views leading to many court battles. Both rely on the First Amendment to support their arguments. But, what did the framers of the Constitution intend when they wrote it?

Original Intent

The First Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…" Originally, the First Amendment applied only to the federal government, but it was later applied to the states. The first part of this clause is called the “Establishment of Religion” clause, and the second part is called the “Free Exercise of Religion” clause.

The Establishment Clause prohibits Congress from establishing a national religion, or promoting one religion over another, non-religion over religion, or religion over non-religion. The framers wanted to avoid what happened in England when the Anglican religion was forced upon the population.

The Free Exercise Clause prevents Congress from restricting the right to engage in religious activities. In fact, many immigrants came to America to worship the way they wanted rather than how their governments in their native countries wanted.

Free Speech and Personal Religious Expression

The First Amendment restrictions apply only to federal and state agencies. The government can’t restrict personal religious beliefs.

Any such limitation violates another right guaranteed under the First Amendment to the Constitution: Freedom of Speech. Freedom of speech includes religious as well as secular speech. Thus, religious clothing and symbols are constitutionally protected forms of expression.

Separation of Church and State Doctrine

“Separation of church and state” does not appear in the First Amendment. The separation principle has been developed and expanded through many court decisions over the last 50 years.

Critics of the separation doctrine argue that the framers of the Constitution couldn’t intend a complete separation between church and state, and point to the many documents that include multiple references to religion and to a Creator, such as the Declaration of Independence.

Clearly, this controversy will continue as federal and state courts struggle to balance the rights of those who support public displays of religious expression on government-supported property with those who don’t.

Tagged as: Education Law, School Law, religious expressions, student athletes, school law lawyer