Walker County Schools get prayer complaint

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

Listen to audio from Solid Rock Baptist Churchhttp://tinyurl.com/8v6yugd

Walker County Schools officials Wednesday were mum on accusations that Ridgeland High School's football program is violating the First Amendment rights of players.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter dated Aug. 21 to Walker County Superintendent Damon Raines challenging several activities led by coach Mark Mariakis.

The group alleged those include:

• Football team trips to a church for meals and Christian messages

• Coach-led postgame prayers

• Bible verses on team apparel

• Mariakis' participation in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes

• Pressuring students to attend a Christian football camp.

Raines released a statement Wednesday, saying the school district received the complaint, but offered no further comment.

"We are in receipt of this letter and are in the process of reviewing its contents," his statement said.

Freedom From Religion Foundation co-President Laurie Annie Gaylor said Wednesday the organization investigated after receiving a complaint from someone familiar with the school's activities.

"We're getting the complaint and we need to bring it to the attention of the school district," Gaylor said. "We don't go searching around the country for violations to write about. We don't make money on this."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., has written to or sued several government in the greater Chattanooga area in recent years.

The group stopped prayers at Soddy-Daisy High School events, won a lawsuit in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against the Rhea County Schools and recently contacted the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga over prayers at school events.

"Students are speaking out so much more," Gaylor said. "A quarter or more are not religious, so there is a lot more offense."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation also first wrote to the Hamilton County Commission in May challenging prayers held during meetings. That letter prompted two local men unaffiliated with the organization to attend meetings and to file a federal lawsuit that is now pending against the county.

The group's Walker County investigation found online evidence of a team meal at Solid Rock Baptist Church. The church's website includes a page with a recorded sermon and photos of players arriving on a school bus and eating dinner.

"This is going to be a yearly event at SRBC for several years to come," the page states.

On the audio, a man identified as Brother Larry Scott talks about his faith at length. He concludes by questioning the players about what would happen if they were to die.

"Who here can say, 'Brother Larry, I know without a shadow of a doubt if that bus goes down in a ditch and I die today on the way back to the field to dress up, that I'm going to heaven, I know I'm a saved Christian.'"

He then asks the players to raise their hands if they aren't sure.

Those boys, he said, "need to get with your coach."

"You need to get with somebody and find out, because you know this: There is no guarantee that I will see you again," he said. "That is not meant to be a scare tactic. It's just the reality of what's going on. You guys hit hard. You play hard. Things can happen to your body."

Scott concludes his prayer with, "In Jesus' name I pray," and calls on the team to shout "Amen!" several times.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation's written complaint specifically cites at least one other football team church outing.

"We have been told that Mariakis previously took the team to a Mormon church, and afterward he made fun of that religion within earshot of Mormon players," the letter from staff attorney Andrew Seidel said.

Mariakis did not return calls for comment late Wednesday.

Walker County School Board member Jim Smith said he wasn't aware the team had meals at churches, though he noted that team dinners are commonplace.

"I had no idea that they were going to church. None of that is anything that I know about. I know he's a mighty fine fellow and he's a real good coach," Smith said.

"I would rather reserve an opinion until I've heard more of the facts on the situation."

The letter asks the school district to investigate and "take immediate action to stop any and all violations of the First Amendment."

In nearby Catoosa County, Ga., schools Superintendent Denia Reese prompted community outcry in 2009 when she stopped Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School cheerleaders' practice of holding up banners bearing Bible phrases at football games after a parent pointed out the legal implications.