Walker County school official denies some prayer claims

Walker County school official denies some prayer claims

August 31st, 2012 by Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News

Coach Mark Mariakis addresses his players after practice at Ridgeland High School.

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

Document: Walker School System response to Freedom From Religion Foundation

In his official response to allegations of First Amendment violations, Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines doesn't admit to any wrongdoing but does hint at a possible change of course in the future.

Raines officially responded to a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which accused Ridgeland High School football coach Mark Mariakis of taking athletes to church for meals where a Christian message was preached, of leading team prayers and pressuring players to attend a Christian football camp.

"Generally, we disagree with your portrayal of some of the events and facts as set forth in your correspondence," Raines wrote in his Thursday letter to the group.

Throughout the letter, Raines switches between the past, present and future verb tenses. He never says whether the football team had a team chaplain in the past but states it "will not have a 'team chaplain.'" He says the school system understands that students shouldn't be "preached to" while participating in a sport, but the letter doesn't say whether students ever were given sermons at any of the church meals, as the foundation claims.

"During these pre-game meals there will be no religious references," Raines' letter states.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group, said the superintendent's response is ambiguous and doesn't specifically address the claims of unconstitutional conduct.

"It's hard reading this to know exactly what they're meaning and what they're not. I just think the way they wrote it is curious," she said. "I would rather have gotten a more measured response and gotten a clean letter that explains what they were and were not doing. This is very defensive."

But she said she's encouraged that the school system seems to be changing some of its ways.

"It seems very clear that they seem to be saying they're going to stop some of the practices," she said.

In his letter, Raines says there's no evidence that the coach ever mocked the Mormon faith, as the Freedom from Religion Foundation claimed. And Raines said Mariakis doesn't lead prayers before and after games.

"Our review of this matter did not find any basis for your contention that Coach Mariakis has led or been active any in pre-game or after-game prayers," he wrote. "Any pre-game or post-game prayers will not be led by, organized by or participated in by any System employee or anyone other than students."

Before moving forward, Gaylor said the foundation will forward Raines' response to the person in Walker County who brought the issue to the group. And she expects that more people could come forward.

"Since we've raised this, it's been obviously high-profile," Gaylor said. "And often when that happens, we start to get other complaints."