FFRF’s major successes in ending entrenched illegal prayer practices in many Southern public schools are attracting the attention of the Religious Right.
Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, a Christian group based in Tupelo, Miss., charged in a rambling broadcast Aug. 22 that FFRF has launched a “second War of Northern Aggression.” (The term is used by some Southerners to describe the Civil War.)
Fischer’s remarks came after publicity over FFRF’s complaint that persuaded a Mississippi public school to obey the law and stop broadcasting prayers over its P.A. system before football games. Fischer mused about FFRF’s legal strategy, imagining it to be, “Let’s get rid of every trace of religious liberty in the South, and we can do it because these people will not fight back. And again the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, and this is the second War of Northern Aggression and they’re winning this thing.”
FFRF has also followed up on Walker County Schools’ response to FFRF’s request to investigate unusual constitutional violations by Ridgeland [Ga.] High School football coach Mark Mariakis. Although praising the superintendent’s “commitment to upholding the Constitution,” the response raised lingering concerns.
Attorney Andrew Seidel’s Aug. 21 letter detailed allegations that FFRF had received over several egregious sports/church entanglements at Ridge-land. Most notable was the coach taking public school football teams to pregame church meals where prayers are recited.
It was also alleged that Mariakis regularly prayed with his teams, had pressured students to attend a “Christian football camp” and that the team had adopted a “team chaplain.”
Superintendent Damon Raines responded 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 [Fellowship of Christian Athletes].” The district said pregame meals will no longer include “religious references.”
Seidel replied Sept. 11 that “taking public school teams to church still involves constitutional concerns.” Quoting legal precedent that bars public schools from holding graduations in churches, he argued that regardless of the purpose in choosing to have a pregame 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 is alarmed over Mariakis’ attendance at a Sept. 9 “Rally to Pray” held to “keep prayer in the practices and before games.” Seidel said, “It seems to send a message that he is unrepentant and hostile to First Amendment limitations on his proselytizing.”
FFRF wants the district to investigate the coach’s remarks and the rally 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 also noted that it appears that school buses 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.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor added, “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.”