Pep Squad Prayers Bring Debate Over Church-State to Gridiron

By Nathaniel Popper

Published September 03, 2004, issue of September 03, 2004.
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As the University of Georgia prepares for the first football game of the season this Saturday, it has been the composition of the cheerleading squad rather than the starting quarterback that has generated the most controversy on campus.

Georgia’s head cheerleading coach, Marilou Braswell, was fired August 23, months after the public university reprimanded her for bringing Christian prayer into team events. The complaint was brought by Jacyln Steele, a 21-year-old Jewish cheerleader who felt she had been discriminated against because of her reluctance to take part in the team’s Christian gatherings.

The final cause for Braswell’s dismissal was a smaller-scale problem: Braswell used a team meeting to tell Steele’s teammates about the charges against her. But it was a longer history that landed Braswell in hot water, and it is this history that has sparked a debate about religious freedom that has taken on particular ferocity in the context of the heavily religious South.

“The notion of cheerleaders and the Constitution in one sentence is enough to blow my mind,” said Marc Stern, an expert in constitutional law at the American Jewish Congress. “But coaches in athletics have a huge hold over students, and it raises serious questions of church-state separation.”

The current situation began to roil in May 2003, when the Atlanta office of the Anti-Defamation League helped Steele file a grievance against Braswell with the University of Georgia’s athletic department, just before cheerleading tryouts for Steele’s junior year. Steele had grown uncomfortable with her coach’s use of the team’s e-mail list to advertise Sunday Bible studies, as well as with the Christian rock that accompanied all team trips.

As a Jew growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, Steele had grown used to Christian prayers at team functions, Steele’s stepfather, David Bernath, explained (Steele has been avoiding interviews, as she began the first weeks of classes for her senior year).

“When there was a prayer for the game, she always knelt down with her teammates,” Bernath said in his southern drawl. “You owed it to your teammates.”

But Bernath said the Christian content of the Georgia cheerleading program was unusual for being coach-led, and for being so pervasive. At one point, Bernath said, Braswell told Steele that she didn’t feel as “spiritually close” to Steele as she did to the other girls. This seemed to take its toll during tryouts after Steele’s freshman year, when Steele was demoted from the squad that cheers at the football game to the one for men’s basketball — no small matter in football-mad Georgia.

Since she was fired last week, Braswell has argued that all the Christian activities on the cheerleading squad were voluntary. In an official statement released August 30, Braswell also provided a detailed description of the way she judged Steele during the tryout in question.

“This is all about a student who did not make the cheer squad she wanted to make,” Braswell’s husband — the minister who led Sunday Bible studies for the cheerleading team — wrote to the Georgia student newspaper, The Red and Black.

The university’s athletic department did its own investigation after Steel made her complaint. In an internal document acquired by the Forward, the staff person in charge of the investigation, Kimberly Ballard-Washington, wrote that, “it is evident that the cheerleaders feel that in order to stay in (or gain) favor of Ms. Braswell, they should attend Bible study and ‘act’ religious.”

The university put Braswell on a 12-month probation, and Braswell was told that there could be “no more religious overtones in your program.” To “cure the differential treatment,” an attorney for the university recommended that Steele be named to the football cheerleading squad for her senior year without having to try out.

The director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Atlanta office, Deborah Lauter, says that her office deals with school prayer issues frequently, and it is not always so straightforward. A long line of court cases has allowed prayer at school events as long as students lead the prayers. But because it was a coach was making religious overtures here, Lauter said, “this was a no-brainer in terms of church-state [issues].”

The ADL is awarding Steele its “Unsung Hero Award” at its September 8 board meeting.

There is, though, room for disagreement on the constitutional questions at play in Braswell’s probation. While Stern at the AJCongress agreed with Lauter’s assessment, Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at the University of California of Los Angeles, said that issues of church-state separation become much “murkier” at the university level, once the students are adults and supposedly more equipped to deal with the religious beliefs of their superiors — as long as there isn’t any coercion or explicit discrimination.

In the end, it was not the prayers that lost Braswell her job, but a statement she made when the team gathered for their first practice of the season on August 7. With Steele in the room, Braswell explained how Steele had ended up on the football squad and said that Steele’s “accusations are totally without merit.” On August 23, Braswell was out of a job.

Steele has received some grief from teammates, according to Bernath. But, Bernath said, the atmosphere is getting better every day, and with the football game against Georgia Southern this Saturday, Steele has a rather narrow focus.

“We just have to represent this school,” Bernath said. “After all, that’s what we’re here for.”

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