The Freedom from Religion Foundation has remaining questions following a response from Walker County Schools received on Sept. 4.
The foundation claims to represent a complainant that alleged that prayer had become a regular occurrence at pre-game meals and game-day rituals for the Ridgeland High School football team
“For the most part it addresses a lot of our concerns,” said Andrew Seidel, FFRF attorney. “We’re not ready to say that we are fully satisfied yet, but it does seem like an excellent start.”
The group sent the response letter on Sept. 11 challenging the school system’s Aug. 30 letter addressing their complaints.
The foundation is not alleging that the school system has gone back on their response, just that there are conflicting messages from the system’s response and statement made by Mariakis during a recent prayer rally.
“We have not had an opportunity to check up, and our complainant hasn’t let us know that anything else is going on,” Seidel said. “We have been contacted by other people too who have raised other concerns and we will get to some of those later on.”
The new letter maintains that two of their original five complaints of religion are still unclear and need to be dealt with.
Seidel still questions if Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis uses scripture verses as a motivational tool and if prayer will continue at team meals.
The assurances that “any pre-game or post-game prayer will not be led by, organized by or participated in by system employees or anyone other than students” and the team “will not have a team chaplain” meets two of the foundations previous complaints.
One of the complaints that players were modifying their jerseys with religious adornment could not be verified by Seidel or school officials.
“This change assures compliance with the Constitution,” Seidel wrote.
The foundation concern remains due to TV media coverage of a “Rally to Pray” event held at Chattanooga Valley Baptist Church.
The annual event, which had nearly 300 people, was held on Saturday, Sept. 8 and had been planned prior to the controversy, according to CVBC pastor Terry Chitwood.
It has been held outdoors and been open to the community as a back-to-school celebration for several years.
“The rain hindered the event. We could have had twice that but the weather was so questionable,” Chitwood said.
“We’re not called to change the world, but we’re called to share the Gospel, and that Gospel will change lives,” Mariakis reportedly said, according to the recent FFRF response.
“We consider his appearance inappropriate under the circumstances, because it seems to send a message that he is unrepentant and hostile to the First Amendment limitations on his proselytizing,” Seidel said. “It’s not clear to us that he understands that he’s not allowed to share the Gospel with his students and athletes.”
Seidel said Mariakis has a right to his own free speech during his personal time, even at the invitation of area churches, which could have been the case during Mariakis speech.
Mariakis has spoken at the church during a dinner event, a marriage retreat and even given his testimony about battling cancer at the church during recent years.
Seidel questions if the event was an effort to keep prayer in team practices and before games.
“He was not doing it as a representative of the school. He is doing it as a Christian man coming to a rally and exercising his right to talk about his faith,” Chitwood said.
“He just said what he believes as a Christian and shares our faith,” Chitwood said, and contends that Mariakis is abiding by the school district’s recent statement that prohibits educators from preaching to students or players.
The foundation claims to have religious quotes by Mariakis “dating back to 1996 and even photographic evidence of his participation in team prayers.”
The biggest concern of the foundation is the manner in which Panther team meals will be continuing and the foundation is seeking a specific policy to “clearly prohibit proselytizing.”
Seidel cited several court decisions that weigh in on the matter, including a 7th Circuit Court’s 7-3 decision in July that prohibited schools from having graduations at churches.
He maintains that team meals (as with graduation) should not be conducted at local churches due to the “sheer religiosity of the space created a likelihood that high school students and their younger siblings would perceive a link between church and state,” as stated in the Doe v. Elmbrook School District decision.
He also deems the usage of school buses taking players to local churches for the meal as inappropriate, and reminds school officials how much of a cost savings this would be in transportation expenses, and legal fees if it continued.
His solution would allow groups to bring food to the school or a local park and serve players without sermonizing.
Chitwood has previously stated that the church would deliver a meal to the school if necessary and abide by any limitations regarding prayer to continue providing for the players.
The three-page letter ends with encouragement.
“We hope the Panther can put this matter behind them soon and concentrate on winning. Good luck against River Ridge on Friday,” Seidel wrote.
“I suspect there will be some show of religiosity,” Seidel said about the upcoming game during a phone interview. “As long as it’s student-led and it’s not organized by any teachers or participated in by the school district, then they are more than welcome to go ahead and do that.”
School system officials are currently reviewing the latest letter and plan to respond soon, according to Walker County superintendent of schools Damon Raines.
First home game
The Ridgeland Panthers held their first home game of the season, since the religious controversy erupted, on Friday, Sept. 14.
The game drew a massive crowd to support the team and Mariakis, with many making a statement with spiritual T-shirts, including creative wording such as “Great Offense Defense.”
After the national anthem, the team marched into the stadium and customarily broke through the Panther banner. Within a matter of seconds, the starting players took the field and the game was under way. Public online calls to read one version of “The Lord’s Prayer” during a moment of silence never materialized, due to the pre-game adjustment. Ridgeland's first touchdown by Darrell Bridges was followed by a two-second "tebow" in the end zone. The second touchdown by Vonn Bell was celebrated with several chest bumps, which then received a penalty flag from the referee for excessive celebration.
The Panthers dominated from the first drive of the game and amassed a 42-0 lead at half-time.
All of the groups contributing to the team meal were announced at halftime, which received increasing levels of applause, as the majority of sponsors were local area churches.
One large group of adults in the stands had bright green shirts with “Freedom for Religion,” but had mostly left as the game was well in hand and the Panther’s secondary teams took the field during the third quarter.
School system response
The school system sent it response on Sept. 13.
“While we continue to disagree on the law regarding various matters, I believe that we both are desirous of respecting the rights of all of those involved in our system,” superintendent Raines wrote.
The letter reaffirms that team meals are provided by both secular and non-secular groups, but does not involve religious activities. It also states the “Rally to Pray” event had no affiliation with the school system, and that coach Mariakis can attend such events on his own time.
“I am of the opinion that all of your complaints and concerns have been carefully reviewed by the system,” Raines wrote. He considers the matter “is behind us now” and plans to continue to focus on the core mission and goals of educating the students in the Walker County school system.