'We're not picking on the South,' Freedom From Religion group says

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

THE STORY SO FARThe Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter dated Aug. 21 to Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines, challenging several activities led by Ridgeland High coach Mark Mariakis:• 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.

The Ridgeland High School football team wasn't lined up against an opposing school Friday night.

But it remains at the center of a public contest involving faith and constitutional rights.

While Walker County school officials, coaches and a local pastor involved in the situation aren't talking about allegations of violating students' First Amendment rights, plenty of people in the community are speaking up.

Many want to know what the Freedom From Religion Foundation is and why it recently has targeted several schools and a local government for what it says are First Amendment violations.

"I feel like there are these organizations out there. They're waiting to pounce, not just to be a helper, but they're waiting to pounce on groups," said Terry Chitwood, music minister and administrator for Chattanooga Valley Baptist Church, which in past years served meals for Ridgeland High players. "It's now national news, not just a local news story."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit based in Madison, Wis., has been pressing for separation of church and state since the late 1970s. One of its co-founders, Annie Laurie Gaylor, launched the group after writing to stop official prayers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison when she was a sophomore.

Supported by membership dues, the organization has grown from two to 19,000 members, Gaylor said. It has four staff attorneys who field and investigate complaints from around the country and often write letters challenging activities they deem unconstitutional.

Between October 2010 and October 2011, the group sent 495 letters challenging religious activities. Of those, 221 went to schools, said staff attorney Rebecca Markert.

"We're not picking on the South; we're equal opportunity," Gaylor said. "Most of the litigation at the Supreme Court has been from the North."

This year, the group has sent three letters about actions in the greater Chattanooga area. In May, the Hamilton County Commission and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga received letters challenging their prayer practices.

On Aug. 21, Ridgeland High School's administration received a letter calling for an investigation into several alleged football team religious activities. Those included church-sponsored meals before games, at least one of which included a sermon.

Local history

But those letters weren't the first.

In 2004, the organization won a decision at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit against Rhea County Schools for a number of activities taking place there, including elementary school Bible classes taught by Bryan College students.

In the fall of 2010, the group challenged Soddy-Daisy High School's pregame prayers over the stadium's loudspeaker, ultimately prompting then-Hamilton County Superintendent Jim Scales to call for an end to the prayers.

The following January, the foundation sent a memo to all Tennessee school superintendents explaining "what the parameters were," Markert said.

"This started for us with Soddy-Daisy," Gaylor said. "Ever since then there have been a high number of complaints coming in from Tennessee."

The organization has doubled its number of staff attorneys since 2010, grown by more than 2,000 members and raked in more money. Federal tax forms from 2011 show the group received $2.42 million from "gifts, grants, contributions and membership fees" that year, up from $1.89 million in 2010.

"We don't go searching around the country for violations to write about," Gaylor said. "We don't make money on this. This is a free service."

Nonetheless, many locals feel that the foundation launches outsider attacks. Among them is East Hamilton High School's volunteer football chaplain, Sterling Jetton.

"To have somebody come in and even begin to say, 'We're from Wisconsin and we want you to stop doing what you're doing' to our County Commission, and to UTC with prayer, and now to Ridgeland," Jetton said.

"They'll probably be coming after us, and that's fine. I'm not worried about the religious part of it. I think they're really infringing on the rights of people, especially since we're doing it voluntarily. It's a sad day," he said.

Jetton, who is active in the football program's booster club, spoke to the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Friday while he was driving from East Hamilton's pregame meal back to the school for the football players.

Jeremy Tedesco, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national nonprofit that often goes toe-to-toe with organizations like Freedom From Religion, has noticed the uptick in the Freedom From Religion Foundation's letter writing.

Clause vs. clause

The groups are often at odds where two provisions of the First Amendment clash. The amendment states, in part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The amendment's first freedom is known as the establishment clause and the latter commonly known as the free-exercise clause.

"The bottom line is that the Freedom From Religion Foundation and groups like them thinks that the establishment clause gives people who are offended the right to cancel the rights of others," Tedesco said. "People have a right to pray in public. Students have a right to pray in school."

Courts find that establishment clause violations occur when a public school or government endorses a prayer or religious activity.

No legal action is pending against Ridgeland or Walker County Schools.

Superintendent Damon Raines has not said what steps will be taken, if any, in response to the foundation's letter. He only acknowledged on Wednesday that he had received it.

Head football coach Mark Mariakis, who is named in the letter, deferred to the superintendent's statement. So did the pastoral staff at Solid Rock Baptist Church, which provided pregame meals to the team and whose website is included as evidence of the practice.

Chitwood, whose church wasn't mentioned in the Freedom From Religion Foundation's letter, said the meals his church hosted for the football team in years past usually involved a blessing of the food but no sermon.

"One of the mothers from the boosters club contacted [the church], saying it would be helpful, the school really didn't have funds to provide the meal to the teams," he said. "We tried to make it more about community and the church saying we support the school."

Chitwood's church did not provide a meal last season, he said.

Lee McDade oversees athletic departments in Hamilton County Schools. He said many of his high school programs can't afford to provide Friday evening meals for players.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with having a pregame meal there," McDade said. "Sometimes the churches will fix the food and feed the kids, as long as they're not being preached to."

Hamilton County's high school athletic directors and coaches receive no special First Amendment training that he's aware of, McDade said.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation's Markert said many school systems do offer such training.

"But some of these superintendents tend to ignore it until there is some specific instance," Markert said.