An advocacy group that challenged Christian religious practices of the Ridgeland High School football coach and team has complimented Walker County's response to the issue but has more questions for the school system.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation still wants to know whether coach Mark Mariakis uses the Bible as a motivational tool at the school, whether athletes will continue to be fed at churches before games and whether athletes will be allowed not to participate in student-led prayers without retribution.
"We have a victory. We think things are moving along very well," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. "We just have a few concerns remaining."
The foundation originally challenged Ridgeland football practices in early August, which caused thousands of supporters to rally behind Mariakis on a Facebook page and at football games.
The most recent letter from the foundation, sent about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, came in response to Walker school Superintendent Damon Raines' response to the group's original complaint. In an Aug. 30 letter, Raines said he disagreed with some of the assertions made by the foundation, but he said the school won't allow preaching during football team meals at churches and won't have the coach or a chaplain pray with the students before a game.
Raines didn't admit to any wrongdoing.
The foundation's new letter complimented the school for its quick response to its original complaints but also questioned Mariakis' statements at a recent "Rally to Pray" in support of the prayers. At the rally, Mariakis is quoted on a local television channel saying: "We're not called to change the world, but we're called to share the gospel and that the gospel will change lives."
In the letter, foundation attorney Andrew Seidel asked Raines to find out whether the coach realizes he can't use his position to share the gospel with his team and other public school students.
It seems inappropriate for Mariakis to talk about spreading his religious beliefs with students after the district has agreed to comply with the law, Gaylor said.
Raines couldn't be reached by email after hours.
Many of Mariakis' supporters have defended the coach, saying athletes, not coaches, have led the prayers and praying before games tightened the bonds between the teams and the community.
"When they do the prayer it just brings [the team] together," Regina Pittman, whose daughter goes to Ridgeland, said Friday at Ridgeland's opening football game. "They feel more like a team, and we feel more like a community when we can pray together."
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.