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Sports ruling spurs religious freedom debate

CUMMING, Ga. (BP) — The father of a Cumming, Ga., high school student reportedly said he doesn’t believe religious suppression motivated officials to throw out his son’s third-place finish in a state track meet for wearing a headband imprinted with Isaiah 40:30-31.

The Georgia High School Association (GHSA) annulled West Forsyth High School senior John Green’s finish in the Class 6-A state championship because the headband violated competition rules that only allow similar items that are “unadorned except for a logo,” the GHSA said in a press release.

The rules don’t mention headbands in particular, the GHSA said, but instead specify “beanies, toboggans, [and] ear covers,” and gives referees “the sole authority for ruling on infractions or irregularities not covered within the rules.” Green wore his headband inside out, but the lettering was large and still visible, the GHSA said.

According to the Forsyth County News, the competitor’s father Jason Green accepts the GHSA’s reasoning, although his son’s supporters questioned whether the runner was disqualified in the Nov. 7 race because of the Scripture, not the headband itself.

“One thing we have been saying to everybody is that we do not believe it was because of the religious nature,” the Forsyth County News quoted Jason Green Nov. 11. “At this point, our concern is for the future. What happened to John has happened. I think [the Georgia High School Association] needs to take a look at this rule and change it and or clarify it so that this doesn’t happen to another runner.”

The GHSA upheld the disqualification despite an appeal from Forsyth County Schools and a twitter campaign at #FreeTheFro — based on the student’s shoulder-length full, curly hair — calling for the win to be reinstated.

A tweet from Georgia Congressman Douglas Collins @Douglas_Collins, a Republican who represents the district where the school is located, was among expressions accusing officials of violating Green’s religious freedom.
“Religious expression being squashed right here in the 9th District,” Collins tweeted. “This is outrageous.”

FOX News commentator Todd Starnes also questioned the basis of the disqualification.

“John Green ran a good race last Saturday. He ran and was not weary. He ran and did not faint. His strength was renewed. He mounted up with wings like an eagle — and he soared across that finish line,” Starnes said in a Nov. 10 editorial, evoking the language of the Bible verse written on the headband. “His championship run may have been erased from the record books — but it will never be erased from his heart.”

The GHSA emphatically denied the accusations of religious suppression.

“First, let’s be completely clear that this disqualification had NOTHING to do with what was written on the athlete’s headband,” the GHSA said in upholding its ruling. “The fact that it was of a religious nature did not enter into the decision whatsoever.

“Also, despite published reports to the contrary, the athlete and his coach were informed BEFORE the start of the race that the headband in question was illegal and could not be worn during the race.”

According to Green’s coach Clayton Tillery, two GHSA officials cleared Green to wear the headband before the race, but a third man not wearing a GHSA uniform “made a comment about the headband at the starting line and walked away,” Forsyth County News sportswriter Michael Foster wrote Nov. 11.

In an official statement, Forsyth County Schools expressed displeasure with the ruling.

“We stand behind our coach and runner. Forsyth County Schools has no reason to believe that they are not being truthful in regards to the events surrounding this disqualification,” the statement reads. “Clayton Tillery is a successful veteran coach with high moral and ethical standards. Additionally, John Green has had a phenomenal career at West Forsyth High School over the past four years and we appreciate his family’s long-term support of our cross country program.”

Green’s father said the family did not anticipate the media attention.

“John just wants to run,” Forsyth County News quoted the father.