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Chestatee backers out in support at season opener after faith controversy
Members of the Chestatee High football team hold hands with bowed heads for a moment before Friday’s season opening game against Flowery Branch at War Eagle Stadium.

Beyond the usual sea of maroon garb under the Friday night lights of the high school football season opener were crosses borne by some of the Chestatee High School faithful.

“The students should have the right to pray,” said Heidi Smith of Gainesville, who attended the game against Flowery Branch at War Eagle Stadium with signs supporting student prayer. “The teachers are also human and some Christians and should have that right as well.”

The religious display came after a recent letter sent by the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, the legal arm of the American Humanist Association, alleging Chestatee coaches have led students in prayer. It claimed non-Christian students have felt pressured to participate.

Attorney Phillip Hartley, responding on behalf of Hall County Schools, wrote a response stating Hall Superintendent Will Schofield is committed to protecting the First Amendment rights of all students.

The front of a specialized Chestatee T-shirt reads “Pray then Play,” with the Chestatee logo surrounding a cross. The back lists scripture from Romans 8:31, written in the shape of a white cross.

According to the shirt’s manufacturer, Ink Wearhouse, more than 300 shirts have been ordered across several states, with several sprinkled throughout the crowd Friday.

“What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” the shirt reads.

Smith grabbed a seat in the stands next to her pastor, Dave Allman of LifePoint Church in Gainesville, who praised the students for practicing their right to prayer.

“I’m real proud of our Chestatee students for taking a stand for their constitutional rights, and as long as they lead in prayer, then no harm and no foul,” Allman said.

On the other side of the bleachers, handfuls of parents and children could be seen with a similar “pray then play” message in the Flowery Branch section. Jackie Riley, a mother of four from Flowery Branch, said the support for Chestatee has spread for many Christians across North Hall.

“We’re all parents, we all have kids in activities and we support them 100 percent,” she said.

Watching the game beyond the end zone, Fellowship of Christian Athletes director Jason Lester said he and the organization are committed to staying in the right with religion and Chestatee athletes.

“We want to be about the law and on the right side of the law,” said Lester, who is the director for Gainesville/Hall County FCA. “We’re working with the school district on that.”