Walker County, Ga., school officials said Ridgeland High School isn't violating athletes' First Amendment rights and the football team will continue to have student-led prayers and church-held meals before games.
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon at the school, Walker Superintendent Damon Raines said he took a complaint lodged against Ridgeland by the Freedom From Religion Foundation seriously and looked at whether football coach Mark Mariakis was doing anything wrong.
The advocacy group's complaint accused the coach of taking athletes to church where a Christian message was preached, of leading postgame prayers and pressuring team members to attend a Christian football camp, along with other accusations.
But Raines said he believes Mariakis is only using motivational speeches to encourage the athletes to display upstanding character on and off the field.
"We have seen a large number of students stay in school and complete their program of study resulting in graduation" because of Mariakis, Raines said.
Mariakis said he would "continue to foster positive relationships with our players," but directed most questions to Raines.
Neither Mariakis nor Raines would say if the coach has led the team in postgame prayers. Raines only would say students have led prayers and will continue to do so.
Andrew Seidel, an attorney with Freedom From Religion Foundation, said it has proof that pastors are preaching to the team at church-held dinners before games, a clear violation of the First Amendment. The website of Solid Rock Baptist Church, one of the team's supporters, has a recording in which a pastor is preaching on Christian salvation as the team was being fed before a game, he said.
"It's clear a public school can't do anything like that," Seidel said.
Seidel said the organization will wait for a response from the school district before taking further action.
Raines said the school will send the letter no later than today.
About 20 supporters gathered in the Ridgeland High School auditorium Wednesday to hear what Mariakis and Raines had to say -- the first time either official has spoken in depth on the complaint, which started with an Aug. 21 letter from the foundation to the school system.
Several crowd members wondered where the complaint originated since the community has shown overwhelming support for the coach and his faith in God. Since the accusations came out, Mariakis supporters have started a Facebook group with nearly 10,000 members who will hold a fundraiser to make money for T-shirts supporting the coach to hand out before the first game.
Officials with Freedom From Religion, which is based in Wisconsin, said in a previous interview that the complaint came from someone familiar with the school's activities.
Some residents also questioned the complaint that pastors preach to the team when they visit churches to eat a meal provided by church members.
But Jeff and Nicole Lamb said their church, South Rossville Baptist, where Jeff Lamb is the youth pastor, feeds the athletes on a rotating schedule with others. The couple, who attended Wednesday's news conference, said the meals have been provided for more than seven years, and they were shocked by the complaint because the church has never talked about Christianity with the athletes.
"We don't preach to them saying, 'Hey, you need to be a Christian,'" Jeff Lamb said. "We don't pass out tracts or anything; we just feed them."
Raines said during the news conference that if he finds any evidence that the churches are preaching to the players, he will stop it.
"If we have to change certain practices we will, but at this point we will continue on with that tradition," he said.
Joy Lukachick is a crime reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing down ...