At the beginning of the school year, Dixie Outfitters T-shirts were all the rage at Cherokee High School. Girls seemed partial to one featuring the Confederate battle flag in the shape of a rose. Boys often wore styles that discreetly but unmistakably displayed Dixie Outfitters' rebel emblem logo.

But now the most popular Dixie Outfitters shirt at the school doesn't feature a flag at all. It says: "Jesus and the Confederate Battle Flag: Banned From Our Schools But Forever in Our Hearts." It became an instant favorite after school officials prohibited shirts featuring the battle flag in response to complaints from two African American families who found them intimidating and offensive.

The ban is stirring old passions about Confederate symbols and their place in Southern history in this increasingly suburban high school, 40 miles northwest of Atlanta. Similar disputes over the flag are being played out more frequently in school systems -- and courtrooms -- across the South and elsewhere, as a new generation's fashion choices raise questions about where historical pride ends and racial insult begins.

Schools in states from Michigan to Alabama have banned the popular Dixie Outfitters shirts just as they might gang colors or miniskirts, saying they are disruptive to the school environment. The rebel flag's modern association with white supremacists makes it a flashpoint for racial confrontation, school officials say.

"This isn't an attempt to refute Southern heritage," said Mike McGowan, a Cherokee County schools spokesman. "This is an issue of a disruption of the learning environment in one of our schools."

Walter C. Butler Jr., president of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, said it is unreasonable to ask African Americans not to react to someone wearing the rebel flag. "To ask black people to respect a flag that was flown by people who wanted to totally subjugate and dehumanize you -- that is totally unthinkable," he said.

But the prohibitions against flag-themed clothing have prompted angry students, parents, Confederate-heritage groups and even the American Civil Liberties Union to respond with protests and lawsuits that argue that students' First Amendment rights are being trampled in the name of political correctness.

"This is our heritage. Nobody should be upset with these shirts," said Ree Simpson, a senior soccer player at Cherokee who says she owns eight Confederate-themed shirts. "During Hispanic Heritage Month, we had to go through having a kid on the intercom every day talking about their history. Do you think they allow that during Confederate History Month?"

Simpson said no one complains when African American students wear clothes made by FUBU, a black-owned company whose acronym means "For Us By Us." Worse, she says, school officials have nothing to say when black students make the biting crack that the acronym also means "farmers used to beat us." Similarly, she says, people assume that members of the school's growing Latino population mean no harm when they wear T-shirts bearing the Mexican flag.

Simpson believes the rebel flag should be viewed the same way. The days when the banner was a symbol of racial hatred and oppression are long gone, she contends. Far from being an expression of hate, she says, her affection for the flag simply reflects Southern pride. "I'm a country girl. I can't help it. I love the South," she said. "If people want to call me a redneck, let them."

It is a sentiment that is apparently widely shared at Cherokee, and beyond. The day after Cherokee Principal Bill Sebring announced the T-shirt ban on the school's intercom this fall, more than 100 students were either sent home or told to change clothes when they defiantly wore the shirts to school. In the weeks that followed, angry parents and Confederate heritage groups organized flag-waving protests outside the school and at several school board meetings.

"All hell broke loose," said Tom Roach, an attorney for the Cherokee County school system. When principals banned the shirts at other county high schools in the past, he said, "there was no public outcry. No complaints. No problems."

But the Confederate flag was a particularly hot topic in Georgia this year. Gov. Roy Barnes (D) was upset in his reelection bid last month in part because he successfully pushed for redesign of the Georgia state flag, which was formerly dominated by the Confederate battle emblem. On the new state banner, the emblem is reduced to a small icon. During the campaign, Barnes's opponent, Sonny Perdue, called for a referendum on the new flag, a position that analysts say helped make him the state's first elected Republican governor since Reconstruction.

Elsewhere in the South, civil rights groups have mobilized to remove the banner in recent years. Activists had it removed from atop the South Carolina statehouse and from other public places, saying it is an insult to African Americans and others who view it as a symbol of bigotry and state-sanctioned injustice. But that campaign has stirred a resentful backlash from groups that view it as an attack on their heritage.

"We're not in a battle just for that flag, we're in a battle to determine whether our Southern heritage and culture survives," said Dan Coleman, public relations director for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, one of the groups that joined the protests at Cherokee High School.

The battle over Confederate-themed clothing has made its way to the courts, which generally have sided with school dress codes that prevent items that officials deem disruptive. In a 1969 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that school officials could not prohibit students from wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, but only because the court found that the armbands were not disturbing the school atmosphere.

By contrast, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit earlier this year revived a lawsuit by two Kentucky students suspended for wearing shirts featuring the Confederate flag. The court said the reasons for the suspension were vague and remanded the case to a lower court, where it was dismissed after the school district settled with the students.

Also, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit earlier this fall sided with a Washington, N.J., student who challenged his school's ban on a T-shirt displaying the word "redneck." The student was suspended from Warren Hills Regional High School for wearing the shirt, which school officials said violated their ban on clothing that portrays racial stereotypes. The school's vice principal said he took "redneck" to mean a violent, bigoted person.

But the court overturned the ban, saying the shirt was not proven to be disruptive. School officials, noting the school has a history of racial tensions, have promised to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

"Since last year, we have gotten well over 200 complaints about the banning of Confederate symbols in schools," said Kirk Lyons, lead counsel for the Southern Legal Resource Center, a North Carolina-based public-interest law firm that works to protect Confederate heritage and is in discussions with some families at Cherokee High School. He said the center is litigating six lawsuits and that dozens of others challenging Confederate clothing bans have been filed across the country.

As the controversy grows, Confederate-themed clothing has become more popular than ever. The owner of Georgia-based Dixie Outfitters says the firm sold 1 million T-shirts last year through the company's Web site and department stores across the South. Most of the shirts depict Southern scenes and symbols, often with the Confederate emblem.

"This is not your typical, in-your-face redneck type of shirt," said Dewey Barber, the firm's owner. "They are espousing the Southern way of life. We're proud of our heritage down here."

Barber said he is "troubled" that his shirts are frequently banned by school officials who view them as offensive. "You can have an Iraqi flag in school. You can have the Russian flag. You can have every flag but the Confederate flag. It is puzzling and disturbing," he said.

In an angry letter to Cherokee Principal Sebring posted on its Web site, Dixie Outfitters called the two families who complained about the shirts -- but asked not to be identified publicly -- "race baiters."

"Are you going to ban the American flag, if one or two people out of 1,800 find it offensive, because it had more to do with the slave trade than any other flag, including the battle flag?" the letter asks.

It is an argument made by many who do not understand why some people find the Confederate battle flag deeply offensive. "The Confederate flag itself is not racist," said Rick Simpson, Ree's father. "It was the American flag that brought slaves to this country."

David Ray, a Cherokee County contractor, said his son, Eric, has been punished with in-school suspensions a couple of times this year for defying a Confederate T-shirt ban at Etowah High, another Cherokee County school. He said he couldn't understand why the shirts are causing such a fuss.

"Slavery ended almost 150 years ago," Ray said. "You might have some parents who still hold the slavery issue or black versus white deep in their hearts. But for the most part, I think, people are over that."

Cherokee senior Ree Simpson, 17, with parents Rick and Peggy. Ree Simpson said her T-shirts are not an expression of hate, but of her pride in her Southern heritage: "Nobody should be upset with these shirts."