CALHOUN, Ga. — Under the bright lights, fans began to cram into the visitor bleachers in search of a good seat Friday. But along with the usual trappings of Panther pride, some fans traded in their black team shirts for a new one that displayed a player kneeling surrounded by the words "Take a knee and pray with me."
And once the stands filled, as the young athletes in black and white clustered behind a banner held by their cheerleaders ready to burst through, a teen raised a Christian flag on the sidelines.
For many Ridgeland fans in the stands and players down below, the real opponent isn't on the football field.
Two weeks ago, Ridgeland High and football coach Mark Mariakis came under attack from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which accused Mariakis of leading the team in prayers and driving players to prepared meals at churches before games. Immediately, thousands threw their support to Mariakis in social media, emails, calls and in person.
To many area residents, faith is everything. In Rossville and many surrounding towns, there are more churches than places to eat. Faith is not a Sunday-only activity with Jesus here but no Jesus there. Faith is embedded in every aspect of their lives.
"[To] ignore faith as the fabric of our community is to ignore who we are," said the Rev. John Moore of LaFayette First United Methodist.
Mariakis supporters believe the fight at Ridgeland High is bigger than one coach, one team and one small town.
It's about being free to take a stand for what you believe, said Jacob Lamb, a former Ridgeland football player.
It's about challenging misinterpretation of the constitution, said Neal Brown, a local chaplain and pastor.
It's about supporting a way of life, said Erica Harris, a mom of a football player.
The lines between the public and private are complicated for Christians in the Southeast. Religious morals dictate liquor laws on Sunday. Political leaders ask God's blessing before city council and county commission meetings.
Campaigning politicians often end their speeches with the same phrase: "And God bless the United States of America."
Faith and football have a high-profile connection. New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow kneels to pray after touchdowns. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees thanked God after winning the Super Bowl in 2010.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has challenged that religious thinking at Ridgeland High. On Aug. 21 the watchdog group wrote a letter to Walker County Schools, saying Mariakis was using his authority as a coach to preach and pray with his team and it had to stop.
Supporters of Mariakis only need to go to the Facebook page set up to support him to read what detractors believe is going on:
"Stop using OUR government to promote YOUR religion," wrote Tom McMnunya on the Facebook page.
"The coach does not have the right to favor one religion over another in his role as a government employee," wrote Debra Burnsworth. "Please educate yourself as to the law."
"[Coach Mariakis] should stop acting like school is church and his football team are crusaders for Christ," wrote Neena Livingstone.
Pushing Christianity or moral values may be controversial, but others say it spurs a lot of good in the community.
"Faith gives us the impulse to do good things," Moore said.
Prayers were welcomed when houses were torn to pieces by a tornado in April 2011, they say.
When a girl showed up at school without shoes, a teacher asked her LaFayette First United Methodist congregation to raise money for new outfits and shoes, Moore said.
When LaFayette High School football player Austin Whitten broke his neck in a pool accident, the town organized a prayer service on the football field asking God to heal his body.
So when a coach helps improve a community by inspiring students and his players, why does he get in trouble, asked Harris: Why can't a group of players pray?
"I don't even pray at home, but I like to see them pray. It gets them to come together and it makes them stronger," she said.
North Georgia is no stranger to this controversy.
Three years ago, Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High school cheerleaders were told they were breaking the law by writing Bible verses on banners the football team ran through at the start of home football games. A local resident complained to Catoosa County Superintendent Denia Reese, who quickly banned the practice.
One of the LFO cheerleaders, Taylor Guinn, said her beliefs on prayer in school were modeled through that experience.
"It helped me understand both sides of the spectrum," she said.
In a University of Georgia speech class on Monday, Guinn said she discussed Ridgeland and Coach Mariakis. She told the class Christians should be careful in these situations not to use their authority in government positions to preach the gospel. One day the tables could be turned and another religion might want to hold prayers in school, she said.
Some Christians and community members agree that there is a line between honoring God and not forcing religion on others. But if it's taken too far, nobody can enjoy their religious rights, said Jennifer Henry, a mom of one of the players.
"We're not pushing Christian religion on anybody. Everybody has there own beliefs. If you don't believe in it, just step away," she said.
On the field Friday night, the Panthers stood in a huddle waiting for the whistle to blow; meanwhile the Calhoun Yellow Jackets knelt on the ground and bowed their heads.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...