FFRF intercepts prayer-football entanglement

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state-church watchdog that has directed a lot of attention toward ending Tennessee constitutional violations in schools recently, and has awarded three Tennessee student activist awards this year, has written yet another letter to a Georgia school over concerns.

FFRF has contacted the Walker County Schools over complaints it has received about proselytizing by a high school coach at Ridgeland High School, in Rossville, Ga., less than 10 miles from downtown Chattanooga.

In recent years, FFRF has halted illegal school prayers at Soddy Daisy football games and graduations, and other Tennessee schools. FFRF won a lawsuit in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004 against Rhea County, which declared unconstitutional devotional religious instruction in the schools, including a program to “teach the bible as literal truth.” Most recently, FFRF contacted the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga over inappropriate prayers at public school athletic events.

In an August 21 letter, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel asked Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines, to investigate complaints over practices by Ridgeland High School football coach Mark Mariakis. According to FFRF’s local complainant, Ridgeland, like Soddy Daisy and UTC, conducts prayers at school football games, in this case often organized or led by Mariakis. “It is illegal for a public school athletic coach to lead a team in prayer,” wrote Seidel, citing numerous legal cases including Supreme Court decisions.

Mariakis is accused by the complainant of shuttling players to different churches for pre-game meals and “at these events the church’s preacher sermonizes to the players about the Christian religion.” Mariakis has stated publicly that the program “opens the door for some of the kids” and is “a way of meeting the need of the churches.” Ministers will “bless the food” and according to one church, “presented the Gospel of Jesus Christ” to the players.

Seidel called this practice an “egregious violation” which must cease immediately.

FFRF is also calling attention to allegations that Mariakis uses bible verses as motivational tools and places pressure on players to attend a religious football camp. “Even if Mariakis is simply suggesting attendance, his position as head coach in charge of playing time, impregnates any suggestion with force. Playing time leads to scholarships and college; it should be a question of merit only, not religion,” Seidel wrote.

FFRF warned the superintendent that the coach endangers federal funding if, as contended, he uses of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes as “a platform and a vehicle that allows us to share Christ with the kids.” FCA is a student club and by law public employee involvement is strictly non-participatory.

FFRF has awarded three Tennessee students $1,000 activist awards so far this year, most recently to a brave 12-year-old, Maia Disbrow, for speaking out against government prayer by the Hamilton County commissioners. FFRF awarded $1,000 to Krystal Myers for blowing the whistle on violations at her school in Lenoir City, Tenn., where her article, “No Rights: The Life of an Atheist” was censored by her school, and to Jeff Shott, a high school student in Spring Hill, Tenn., who exposed violations at his school.

FFRF is an educational organization with more than 19,000 nonreligious members, including about 275 in Tennessee, that works to keep state and church separate.

FFRF requested a prompt response, noting that the first scheduled game for Ridgeland is August 31. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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