When faith and football don't mix

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 24 2012 6:00 a.m. MDT

Kountze High School cheerleader Brooke Coates paints scripture verses on a car Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012 in Kountze, Texas. The small Hardin County community is rallying behind the high school's cheerleaders after the squad members were told they could not use scripture verses on their signs at the football games.

Dave Ryan, The Beaumont Enterprise, Associated Press

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Our take: Where's the line between freedom of religion and the separation of church and state? It's a question many cities and particularly public schools have had to ask in the past few months. Most recently, a group of high school cheerleaders in Texas have come under fire for using biblical quotes and banners at football games.

While the Constitution does support an individual's right to worship, it also frowns upon the state, or in this case a state-sponsored school, endorsing a religion. Thus, public schools must walk a blurry line between allowing participants to express personal beliefs without those beliefs being attached to the school as an endorsement.

Ken Paulson, president and CEO of the First Amendment Center in Nashville and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, discusses how schools currently walk the line in this column from USA Today.

You can throw a Hail Mary at a public school football game, but you can't actually hail Mary. That distinction is at the heart of a flurry of incidents this fall in which public universities and high schools are being challenged for conducting prayers before football games. In recent months:

The University of Tennessee-Chattanooga announced that it will no longer hold public prayers before football games, while the UT campus in Knoxville said it was retaining them at Neyland Stadium. The decisions came after accusations by the Freedom From Religion Foundation that the practice violates the separation of church and state.

In August, some Pine Belt, Miss., high school districts decided to stop holding prayers before home football games after complaints. The Lenoir City, Tenn., school board and the Haralson County High School in Tallapoosa, Ga., did the same.

Sissonville High School in West Virginia in September halted prayers over the loud speaker before football games after a parent objected.

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