Religious Dispute Leads to Coach’s Departure

Oct 8, 2004

The University of Georgia cheerleading coach, who was fired amid a controversy over whether she forced her own religious beliefs on her team, has filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the school and some of its administrators.
Specifically, Marilou Braswell alleged four causes of action, including deprivation of religious freedom, freedom of speech, equal protection of the laws and due process of law.
The impetus for the suit occurred several years ago when, according to the region’s anti-defamation league (ADL), Braswell began asking team members “to participate in Bible study sessions and other Christian-oriented activities.” The ADL has alleged that that participation had been made a de facto requirement for advancing to the prestigious football squad
In the fall of 2003, cheerleader Jaclyn Steele, who is Jewish, formally complained to the university. Braswell was placed on probation. Last spring, the UGA athletic department promoted Steele back to the football squad for this season without having to go through tryouts, an action that Braswell alleges was done to avoid a lawsuit.
Braswell further claims that in an email to Frank Crumley, the senior associate AD for finance and administration, she asked him to “please prepare a statement for me that you want me to read explaining (Steele being placed on the football squad).”
That claim was rebuffed in a public letter from AD Damon Evans, which read: “You requested that Mr. Crumley put his direct orders to you in writing, which is not required by (the Athletic Association) policy or procedure. You ignored his verbal instructions.”
Braswell took matters into her own hands, reading the following statement to the team on August 7:
“On or about June 2003, Jaclyn Steele issued a complaint with the UGA Legal Affairs Department accusing me of religious discrimination against her. It is my position that her accusations are totally without merit. I have retained counsel to investigate the matter and prove my position.
“However, because the allegations were made, the UGA Athletic Department has mandated the Jaclyn Steele be placed, without having to try out, on this squad.
“Because this is an ongoing investigation, I will have no further comment regarding this situation at this time, except to say this. From this point forward, we will act in a manner that is consistent with what is the ‘greater good’ for this squad. Jaclyn Steele is a member of this team and is to be treated like any other member. I will not tolerate any negative action, discussion or comments regarding Jackie as a result of this situation. We will move on with the business of being the best cheer squad that we can be.”
Braswell was fired on August 23 for “discourteous and disruptive behavior.” Her attorney, Marie Bruce, has questioned the rationale of the firing, telling the student newspaper that Braswell “wanted her cheerleaders to be aware of why that was happening. I don’t see how a recitation of the facts as they exist can be retaliation.”
Braswell appealed through university channels, only to be rebuffed by Evans. “I share Mr. (Frank) Crumley’s lack of confidence in your ability to exercise the judgment and leadership required of a Program Coordinator. You expressed neither regret about the misconduct, nor any commitment to change. You have refused to accept responsibility for your conduct and disruptive effects.”
As mentioned above, Braswell sued, naming the Board of Regents, University President Michael Adams, the Athletic Association, Evans and Crumley as defendants.
One of the most interesting arguments that Braswell makes is that she was subject to gender discrimination. Team prayers were and remain “authorized and condoned by the university and was openly encouraged by male coaches, including the head coaches of the football, basketball and baseball programs.”
Braswell also alleged in her suit that the Athletic Association “encourages football players to attend Christian Sunday services as a group and condones (Head Coach Mark Richt’s) frequent references to a religious figure … while acting in his official capacity.”


Articles in Current Issue