FORT OGLETHORPE, Ga. The Warriors of Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School took the field Friday night without any Bible verses written on the cheerleaders' banner.
Instead, the football team ran through a banner that read "This is Big Red Country" before each bent on a knee to pray on the field of Tommy Cash Stadium.
The spirited display comes after the school district banned the banners last week over concerns they were unconstitutional and could provoke a lawsuit, angering many in the deeply religious north Georgia town of Fort Oglethorpe.
"I'm just kind of unnerved about it," said 18-year-old Cassandra Cooksey, a recent graduate who often prayed with her fellow marching band members before football games. "It seems like the majority of people in our community want this and they don't have a problem with it, so I think they should be allowed to have the signs if they want to."
The move has galvanized the community. Hundreds of people attended a rally this week supporting the signs, which included messages such as: "Commit to the Lord, whatever you do, and your plans will succeed." Many students attended class Friday wearing shirts with Bible verses and painted their cars with messages that read: "Warriors for Christ."
During the game, several other messages were visible in the packed stadium. Some people stood with signs that read "You Can't Silence Us" and some young men had Bible verses painted on their chests.
"When you get a whole bunch of teenagers mad, this is what happens. We stand up for what believe in," 16-year-old Shelby Rouse said over the roar of a pre-game pep rally.
Cheerleader Taylor Guinn said she is disappointed about the banning of the signs on the football field and believed there was nothing wrong with displaying them.
"It's done good because it brought a lot of glory to God," the 17-year-old senior said.
Players at the 900-student school began running through the biblical banners shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and school Principal Jerry Ransom said he enthusiastically supported it then. But Catoosa County schools Superintendent Denia Reese banned the practice after a parent complained.
Reese said the school board's attorney advised her the signs violated federal law because they were being displayed by the cheerleaders during a school-sponsored event.
"I regret that the cheerleaders cannot display their signs in the football stadium without violating the First Amendment," Reese said in a statement. "I rely on reading the Bible daily, and I would never deny our students the opportunity to express their religious beliefs."
The Anti-Defamation League, a human rights group, sent a letter to Reese commending the ban.
"There are legal ways for students to have religious observation in a school context and there are illegal ways, and we believe Reese is correct that the football game crosses a line," said Bill Nigut, the group's southeast regional director.
Tom Rogeberg, a spokesman of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, said he can understand banning cheerleaders on the field from displaying religious banners. But he said spectators in the stands must be able to continue expressing their beliefs freely as they did in Fort Oglethorpe on Friday.
"It's been long seen at sporting events with banners like John 3:16 being put up by fans," Rogeberg said.