Friday night's packed crowds looked more like a church service than a high school football game as both sides of fans held signs with Bible verses and Christian phrases as Lakeview-Fort Ogle-thorpe played Ridgeland.
"You took him off our sign but you will never take him out of our hearts," and similar signs flooded the home stands showing support for the LFO cheerleaders who were banned from holding their banners with Bible verses last week.
Catoosa County Schools Superintendent Denia Reese banned the signs that were part of recent high school tradition from the football games when a local resident complained they were a violation of federal laws.
The community has rallied behind the cheerleaders, and a rally on Tuesday drew hundreds of people.
"A lot of good has come out of this," said Christine Willingham, an LFO cheerleader. "This has brought (people) to God."
After his team lost 34-0 to Ridgeland, Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe coach Todd Windham acknowledged all the attention from the controversy.
"I'm not going to use that as an excuse," he said. "During the week I thought the players handled it nicely, about as good as they possibly could. The bottom line is we got beat by a team that played better football."
The student section was filled with "Jesus" painted on body's and faces and Bible verses draped over parts of the stands. At least a third of the crowd had on "Warriors for Christ" shirts that the cheerleaders sold all week and handed out before the game.
"I believe it's more about people supporting their beliefs," LFO principal Jerry Ransom said. "I think it's brought (the community) together."
While Mr. Ransom said he doesn't think the school board could have handled the issue any differently, he thinks the cheerleading team has been "awesome" in handling the situation.
Through the sea of supporters were two opponents who had handmade shirts that said "Protect the Law."
Steven Harris and Julie Smith, both seniors at LFO, made the shirts to show their support with Mrs. Reese's decision to ban the signs and support the law that separates church from state.
"I just want people to know there are other beliefs," Mr. Harris said. "This isn't a Christian school."
The sign issue began when Donna Jackson, a resident of Ringgold, Ga., complained to the superintendent about the signs. It became more controversial when she said she was only trying to warn the school the signs could lead to a lawsuit.
Ms. Jackson, a postgraduate student at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, said Thursday in a news release that she "neither intended nor expected her (Mrs. Reese) to take the drastic action that ensued."
On Thursday, Catoosa County officials released a statement in which Mrs. Reese said, "Donna Jackson called me on Sept. 23, 2009, and made the accusation that the school system was breaking the law and that it needed to be stopped."
But students, parents and some without affiliation to the school, came to Friday night's game with signs and shirts supporting the cheerleaders.
Joyce Sparks, of Ringgold, and her husband came to the game with their three children, none of whom go to either school.
"It's not about the football game," she said. "I'm here to support the cheerleaders and stand up for Christianity."
She and her family were holding signs that read, "I (Heart) Jesus" and "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ."
Even Ridgeland fans ignored the rivalry and supported the cheerleaders.
"We're behind them all the way," said Taylor Clark, a Ridgeland cheerleader. "I just don't think it's right for them to take their signs away like that."
The Ridgeland cheerleaders had red and white ribbons pinned to their outfits and made signs in support of the LFO cheerleaders as well as giving the whole squad "goody baskets" they made before the game, Ms. Clark said.
"They're our worst enemies basically, but this shouldn't matter," she said. "The signs and God matter more than just winning the game."
The opposing team had signs draped across the fence saying "We support your team" and "We believe." A few Ridgeland fans even wore the red "Warriors for Christ" shirts and held their own signs with Bible verses.
Another rally is planned on Oct. 13 at the Catoosa County board of education meeting.
"This is what we want, people to come and support the cheerleaders and support Christ," said local youth pastor Brad Scott, one of the organizers of the Tuesday rally and Republican Party chairman for Catoosa County.
More than the ScoreStaff Photo by Dan Henry Fans standing in the "free speech" area hold religious signs in preparation for Friday evening's football game between Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School and Ridgeland High School after a complaint led the school to prohibit cheerleaders from writing scripture on motivational signs.
Joy Lukachick is a crime reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing down ...