Firing of Christian Cheerleading Coach Upheld

Fired University of Georgia cheerleading coach Marilou Braswell (search) on Monday was denied her request to be reinstated and was told by a federal judge that she faced an uphill battle in her lawsuit against the university.

Braswell hoped to have her job restored pending the civil lawsuit. U.S. District judge Tom Thrash said Braswell did not prove her rights to free exercise of religion and free speech had been violated.

"She refused to accept the judgment of her superiors and allowed her vehement disagreement to cloud her judgment and put herself in an adversarial position with the university and the athletic association," Thrash said.

"Ordering her reinstatement would cause more harm to the university than would be warranted for an interest in reinstating her to vindicate her constitutional rights."

Braswell was fired Aug. 23, two weeks after she read a prepared statement informing cheerleaders that teammate Jaclyn Steele (search) had made allegations of religious discrimination against her.

Braswell sued the University of Georgia Athletic Association (search), athletic director Damon Evans, senior associate athletic director Frank Crumley, UGA President Michael Adams and the University System Board of Regents.

Braswell, who coached for 12 years, claims the athletic association tried to deprive her of her First Amendment freedom of speech and free exercise of religion, as well as 14th Amendment due process and equal protection rights.

Thrash said he could grant Braswell's request to be reinstated only if he thought she had a good chance for success in her lawsuit.

In a ruling university attorneys believe could indicate Thrash may approve their request to dismiss the suit, the judge said "I do not believe it is likely the plaintiff will prevail on her constitutional claims."

Braswell's attorney, Hue Henry, said he would press on with the lawsuit, despite the prediction from Thrash.

"We're going to educate the judge further," Henry said. "This is a preliminary ruling. ... I have been in many situations where the judge thought we were going to lose and the jury thought otherwise. Judges are not infallible."

Thrash could rule on the request to dismiss in another hearing or in a written ruling, according to athletic association attorney Ed Tolley.

Tolley said Thrash "sort of gave an indication what he was thinking."

Braswell, who wiped away tears as Thrash made his ruling, insisted after the hearing "I have never discriminated against anybody."

"I guess that's the hard part of being fired when you know you've done nothing wrong," Braswell said.

Steele, who is Jewish, and another Jewish cheerleader first complained that Braswell gave unfavorable treatment to non-Christian cheerleaders and others who did not participate in pregame prayers and Bible studies at Braswell's home.

The university investigated their complaint and placed Braswell on probation while ordering Steele to be placed on the football cheerleading squad without a tryout.

On Aug. 7, Braswell read a prepared statement to the cheerleaders explaining why Steele was back on the squad, and in the statement Braswell said she planned to fight the charges of discrimination. On Aug. 23, Braswell received a letter from Crumley terminating her employment.

Henry said Georgia football coach Mark Richt has received public complaints for encouraging his players to participate in Christian services.

Attorneys for the athletic association and the university argued that Braswell's case is different because a team member charged Braswell with discrimination.

"If we had the same situation in the football program, then we could make a comparison of apples to apples," said attorney Bryan Webb, representing Adams, Evans and the Board of Regents.

Henry said after the hearing "We believe we might be able to find complaints that football players have made."

Thrash noted during the hearing that former football player Musa Smith said he knew it was not required to attend church services.

"The football program is not on trial here," Thrash said. "The only relevance would be to find Mrs. Braswell had her equal protection rights violated."