A coach from a Georgia high school known for leading prayers with the team and serving them meals at a local church has gained a growing level of support from social media.
Mark Mariakis, a football coach from Ridgeland High School in Walker County Schools, has received much support through multiple Facebook groups with thousands of likes.
The largest, "Support Coach Mariakis," was formed last Wednesday. It received 5,000 likes in four days and at present is a couple hundred shy of 10,000.
"We as a community needs to come together to support this brave coach. We need to take a stand against this annoying group of lawyers from Wisconsin (The Freedom From Religion) getting upset every time someone publicly pronounces their faith in God!" reads the About section for the Facebook group.
"We can no longer sit around doing nothing it is time to stand up and FIGHT for our God, our fellow Christians, and most importantly our right to publicly talk about these things. 'BE FISHERS OF MEN.'"
Last Tuesday, the Wisconsin-based secular group Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Damon Raines, superintendent of Walker County Schools, in response to complaints the FFRF said they received regarding the practices of Mariakis.
"It is our information and understanding that Ridgeland High School football coach Mark Mariakis is violating the First Amendment in several ways," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel.
"Our local complainant reports that on game day, Mariakis takes the football team to a local church for dinner ... News reports show that [Mariakis] leads the team in pre- or post-game prayers."
Joining the FFRF in their concern over Mariakis' actions is the church-state watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Writing on the blog "Wall of Separation," Simon Brown of Americans United felt there was a religious bias in the outcry of support.
"...if Mariakis were a Muslim, we wouldn't even be having this discussion. The community would have launched a 'Fire Coach Mariakis' Facebook page instead," wrote Brown.
"But this community doesn't see anything wrong here, because it's hard for many of them to imagine anyone having a problem with an open endorsement of Christianity."
The "Support Coach Mariakis" group is not the only Facebook group created to stand with the Ridgeland coach. "We Support Coach Mariakis!! Panther Nation!!" group, whose title refers to Ridgeland's football team name, has over 1,300 members. Many have voiced how while openly religious Mariakis never imposed his Christian beliefs on any player.
"Never once did he ever force Christianity on anyone. Yes, he talked about the Lord very regularly during pre-game speeches, but everyone responded to it very positively," wrote Matthew Daniel, a former colleague.
Supporters of Mariakis have vowed to attend the first home game for Ridgeland High on Sept. 14 in an act of support. The Facebook event created for the occasion has over 600 people listed as "going" and over a 100 listed as "maybe." Another event, scheduled for Saturday, is a car wash that has 60 people listed as "going."
"We are going to have a car wash so that we can get t-shirts made for the game on Sept 14th (RALLY DAY)! These shirts will be handed out before the game starts. This is a non-profit event, so all money made will go toward getting shirts. We need all the support we can get for this. And maybe a couple to help wash, just let us know," reads the event description.
While many in the community are voicing support for Mariakis, there are those who take issue with his religious expression. One individual, Christi McEntyre, wrote a column on the website catwalkchatt.com.
"But just because something is tradition, just because it's always been done and no one has complained, doesn't mean it should continue," wrote McEntyre. "Students who want to pray before a football game are free to do so – privately, or in small, student-led groups. Not with their coach."
In addition to the local and online support, conservative legal group Liberty Counsel has also stepped in, offering legal aid for Walker County Schools should the debate over Mariakis' actions go to court.