Group sends second prayer letter to Ridgeland

In a second letter in two weeks to Walker County Schools, the Freedom From Religion Foundation cites Facebook posts and student comments to the media as further evidence of First Amendment violations.

Since the group's Aug. 21 letter, "it has come to our attention that Walker County Schools has received an outpouring of 'support,' including a number of Facebook pages that confirm some of our original allegations and point out additional constitutional violations," Freedom From Religion Foundation Attorney Andrew Seidel said in Monday's letter.

The foundation letter contains comments from a "Support Coach Mariakis" Facebook page that, by Monday afternoon, had more than 9,000 people to "like" it.

In one Facebook post cited by the foundation, Matthew Daniel, who said he served as a football team manager for several years, said Mariakis never forced Christianity on anyone.

"Yes, he talked about the Lord very regularly during pregame speeches, but everyone responded very positively," a statement from Daniel's account said. "Because of his Godly example, many came to know Jesus Christ as their personal savior!"

Two other messages allege that the school had a team chaplain, Rocky Bradford, the foundation's letter stated.

"Public high school teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team, or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain because public schools may not advance or promote religion," Seidel wrote, citing six U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation letter also challenges a Liberty Counsel offer to assist the school system on a pro bono basis. Liberty Counsel is a nonprofit legal group affiliated with Liberty University in Virginia.

"The 'no cost' offer from [Liberty Counsel] is disingenuous," Seidel wrote. "Even with pro bono legal representation, a court battle could cost Walker County taxpayers thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars."

"This isn't a game," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president. "This is public money and public trust. Lots and lots of money gets spent by taxpayers when these things are lost. School prayer, this is settled law. There isn't any point in protecting the proselytizer or to continue these practices."

The foundation included a list of cases "where schools and local governmental entities ended up paying vast sums of money to plaintiffs in lawsuits they lost," the letter stated. The judgments range from $53,000 paid by Great Falls, S.C., and $120,000 paid by the Rhea County Schools up to $1.4 million against the Tarek ibn Zivad Academy in Minnesota. Liberty Counsel defended four of the 10 cases cited, according to the letter.

Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel founder and chairman, took issue with the foundation's list and said its only offer to the school system at this stage is to advise administrators on constitutional issues, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation's blanket assertion that churches offering a pregame meal is unconstitutional.

"It's the same misinformation that the Freedom From Religion Foundation typically uses to push its way around the country," he said. "We have an 86 percent win rate from 1989 to the present. We have lost one Ten Commandments case, but we've won over 20/25 since then. We have since 2005 never lost a Ten Commandments case at the Court of Appeals."

Staver said the Freedom From Religion Foundation has "a very poor win rate" in cases it litigates.

No suit has been filed against the Walker County Schools.

The Chattanooga Valley Church in Flintsone, Ga., is hosting a "Rally to Pray" on Sept. 8 at 6 p.m. The church's announcement bills the event as "a time of worship and prayer for our community, state and country."

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