Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines says district officials are reviewing a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation that charges that Ridgeland High School's football program is violating the First Amendment rights of players. Such study is prudent. There's no need for a knee-jerk response to such a serious matter. Raines and other officials should objectively examine the charges and determine their validity. If they find that any or all of the alleged activities took place, the superintendent should eliminate them.
If Raines does so, the decision won't be popular. It's likely that a majority of students, teachers and patrons at Ridgeland are comfortable with the status quo and the football program overseen by coach Mark Mariakis. Popularity, however, is not the proper measure in the matter. Legal compliance is.
Well-established law says that neither schools nor school-sponsored groups (a football team certainly is in that category) can promote a religious message or endorse religious beliefs. The foundation cited several activities led by the coach, including team trips to a church for meals and Christian messages; coach-led post-game prayers; Bible verses on team apparel; Mariakis' participation in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes; and pressuring students to attend a Christian football camp, that it says violate the law. If any or all of the allegations are proved true, the correct response is for the district to forbid such activities.
Compliance with constitutional mandates would not stop prayer or reading of Bible verses or attendance at Christian services or camps. It would eliminate, however, official sponsorship of such activities while maintaining an individual's right to pursue those activities at a time and place of their choice. The latter principle should be upheld.
Those who argue that school-sanctioned religious activity at athletic contests -- or graduation or other school events -- is acceptable are thinking with their hearts instead of their minds. They conveniently overlook the truth that public schools by design serve a disparate population that remains predominately Christian, but which contains growing numbers of Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic and atheist students as well.
Public schools, of course, are funded by all taxpayers and therefore should be free of any school-promoted religious activity. Football and other athletic teams are not and should not be exempt from a requirement that correctly honors the nation's rich diversity and heritage.
The allegations made by the Freedom From Religious Foundation may or may not be proved true. Whatever the outcome is, though, area residents should remember that religion is inherently personal and private and that it should be free of government influence.
Parents and churches, not schools or coaches, are best equipped to provide religious guidance and instruction to children. Any effort -- at Ridgeland or at any other public institution -- to directly or indirectly promote religion and the Bible might be popular, but that does make it right. The proper, if sometimes unpopular course, is to uphold First Amendment principles that help assure government neutrality toward religion.
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