FFRF claims victory in Ridgeland school coach complaint

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has followed up on Walker County Schools’ (Ridgeland, Ga.) response to its request to investigate unusual constitutional violations by Ridgeland High School football coach Mark Mariakis. Although praising the superintendent’s “commitment to upholding the Constitution,” the letter raised some lingering concerns.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s Aug. 21 letter of complaint had detailed allegations FFRF had received over a number of egregious public sports-church entanglements at Ridgeland High School. Most notably, they included the coach taking public school football teams to pre-game church meals where pre-meal prayers are conducted. FFRF also asked for an investigation into the allegation that Mariakis regularly prays with his teams, had pressured public school students to attend a “Christian football camp,” and that the team had adopted a “team chaplain.”

Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines responded on Aug. 30 that “the district will not have a team chaplain nor will school officials or employees, including coaches, organize, lead, or participate in any prayers. Staff will also refrain from participating in the FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes].” The District indicated pre-game meals will no longer include “religious references.”

As Seidel stated in his Sept. 11 reply, “taking public school teams to church still involves constitutional concerns.” Quoting legal precedent that prohibits public schools from holding graduations in churches, Seidel argued that regardless of the purpose in choosing to have a pre-game meal in a church, “the sheer religiosity of the space create[s] a likelihood that high school students . . . would perceive a link between church and state.” FFRF suggested that the district could avoid legal liability and save money on transportation by hosting a “potluck” at the school and allowing “any organization, restaurant, or business to donate meals.”

FFRF was alarmed over Mariakis’ attendance on Sept. 9 of a “Rally to Pray” by those who wish to “keep prayer in the practices and before games.” FFRF’s response called the coach’s appearance “inappropriate,” saying, “It seems to send a message that he is unrepentant and hostile to First Amendment limitations on his proselytizing.” The letter asked the schools to investigate the context of his remarks and to “ensure that Mariakis understands he cannot use his position as coach to ‘share the Gospel’ with his team and other public students.”

FFRF urged the district to adopt a written policy over religion in the schools “clearly prohibiting proselytizing and prayer by school officials or at school-arranged and sanctioned events.” FFRF also noted that it appears public school buses and drivers are taking players, coaches and staff from the school to churches for meals. FFRF further requested a response to an unanswered allegation from its original complaint that the football program has used the bible as a motivational tool.

Seidel concluded his reply: “We hope the Panthers can put this matter behind them soon and concentrate on winning. Good luck against River Ridge on Friday.”

“When a public school district has permitted unconstitutional practices to flourish for years, it creates a climate of intolerance. We see that intolerance in the community’s reaction to our reasonable request to ensure that student rights of conscience, and Supreme Court precedent, are honored in Walker County schools. The business of a public school is to educate, not to proselytize. This is a ‘teaching moment’ for Walker County schools and we feel it is the District’s duty to explain not only to staff, but to students and the community, why the First Amendment was adopted and why its prohibitions against devotionals in public schools are laudable and protect us all,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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