Religious freedom or needless interference? Lawmakers debate high school athletic wear

I talked to the author of House Bill 870  and listened to the House Education Committee discussion last week and am still a bit confused over the real intent of the bill.

It seems to focus on allowing athletes to wear religious expressions on sports uniforms, but the lead sponsor tells me it has more to do with giving small private schools a bit of flexibility in which teams they can play.

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

Whatever the bill does, it tampers with what some parents consider the most important part of high school--- athletic competition.

The religious expression piece of the legislation stems from a much-debated incident in which a Forsyth high school runner was disqualified in a fall meet because of a headband that displayed Bible verse.

There are two versions of the incident. In their comments, House Ed members appeared to embrace the one in which the runner ignored two warnings the headband violated policy and had to be removed before he ran. The headband displayed a Bible verse and a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the second version, the runner felt within his legal rights to compete with the headband as he had done so at another meet with no repercussions.

Either way, it seems a petty issue for the Legislature to jump into and one fraught with possible problems.

Remember the recent news accounts of people attempting to wear a spaghetti colander in driver license photos? Contending they are Pastafarians, these folks have been telling their respective state DMVs they belong to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It's a spoof sect seeing a resurgence of late of "members" attempting to take their official driver license photo with their religious headgear. Of course, I would assume safety regulations would keep colanders off the field but you see the problem.

Rep. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, told me on the phone his main goal with HB 870 was not the religious expression, although that piece was generating the most interest. His primary concern was what he considered unfair regulations that ban the 398 public and 57 private schools in the Georgia High School Association from playing non-association schools. That prevents small private schools in his area from informal scrimmages.

“The biggest issue I am looking at is cross play," said Strickland. "My bill would let some schools in my district do cross play. Now, they cannot do matches with these other private schools. Under the  bill, two schools, public or private, that want to play each other, agree in writing and meet the same safety standards can play. That is one the biggest issues for these smaller schools -– trying to find someone to play. ”

Here is the AJC story on the bill by education writer Ty Tagami:

The West Forsyth High School runner "was just expressing his belief in his Creator, " said Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, the lead co-sponsor of companion legislation, Senate Bill 309. "I found that a little bit troubling."

Rep. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, the lead co-sponsor of HB 870, said the legislation was aimed at the possibility of discrimination. If the association ever undoes its ban on any individual expression on team uniforms, he said, the bill would prohibit discrimination against the religious kind.

Gary Phillips, the executive director of the association, doesn't read it that way. The language would compel his organization to allow religious expression on uniforms, he said. That would place his group at odds with the National Federation of State High School Associations' prohibition against individual expression --- "illegal adornments" --- on team uniforms.

"It would quickly become out of control, " said Phillips, who testified against the House bill Wednesday and spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday. "What if a kid wants to wear something on his arm band that says 'I love ISIS?' Under this rule, we would have no way to control that."

If Georgia doesn't comply with the national federation policy, he said, his association could lose four seats on the national rule-making body, diminishing this state's influence over high school sports policy.

Both bills also address a secular issue. Currently, the 398 public and 57 private schools in the Association are banned from playing non-association schools, meaning most private schools in Georgia. Even informal scrimmages are forbidden. In rural areas, that leaves many private schools with few opportunities to play.

The bills would ban public high schools from participating in Association events unless the Association changes its rules to allow cross play. Phillips said his organization has been working for months to make that change. The executive committee signed off on it the morning of Wednesday's legislative hearings, he said, but the full membership must vote, and they only meet twice a year. He said he could "pretty well count on the regular membership to go along with that" when they meet in April. Strickland isn't willing to wait. He said the legislation merely codifies what the Association is promising to do. He said it's unfair that many private school students get fewer athletic opportunities.