published Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Walker County Schools: Prayer questions answered

Walker County school officials say they will continue to allow churches to serve meals to the Ridgeland High School football team before games.

The tradition doesn't break the law, they said.

Schools Superintendent Damon Raines said any First Amendment questions about Ridgeland's football team have been answered.

"What may appear to be inappropriate to you, we believe is appropriate," Raines wrote in a response on Monday to the Freedom From the Religion Foundation, the Wisconsin-based advocacy group that complained about the practice.

The issue arises from a difference in interpretation of the constitution, Raines said.

Walker County Schools and the foundation have written letters back and forth since the foundation asked Aug. 21 about whether Ridgeland Coach Mark Mariakis was breaking the law by praying with his team and by taking players for pre-games meals at churches where sermons were preached.

Raines defended Mariakis, saying there was no preaching at team meals, but also said prayer will be student-led at football games.

While Raines said he hopes the foundation is now satisfied, an attorney with the group said there is still an issue with players being taken to churches. The advocacy group will write another letter, hoping to come to a better agreement about pre-game meals hosted at local churches, said attorney Andrew Seidel.

If the church members were taking the meals to school to feed the players, that would be a gray area, Seidel said. Driving the students to a church -- even without preaching -- is still endorsing a religion, he argued.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation will continue to ask questions until officials are satisfied the school district is complying with the constitution, he said.

"When we are satisfied, we'll be gone," he said.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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