(Photo: Walker County Schools)
A Georgia school district that has a coach at the center of a church-state debate has officially announced that they do not believe he violated church and state separation.
In a letter sent to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines stated that Ridgeland High School football coach Mark Mariakis did not violate church and state barriers.
"On behalf of the Walker County School System, your complaints are taken very seriously, and each enumerated complaint stated in your correspondence has been carefully reviewed," wrote Raines. "...it appears your correspondence has put together bits and pieces of articles, quotes and occurrences out of context which gives an inaccurate picture of what actually has or has not taken place."
Last Tuesday, the Wisconsin-based group FFRF sent a letter to Superintendent Raines in response to complaints the FFRF said they received regarding the religious practices of coach Mariakis.
"It is our information and understanding that Ridgeland High School football coach Mark Mariakis is violating the First Amendment in several ways," wrote Andrew Seidel, Staff Attorney for FFRF. "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."
Mathew D. Staver, founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel, which offered legal counsel should the debate go to court, told The Christian Post that there is no evidence Mariakis did anything wrong.
"There is no evidence at this point to suggest the coach has done anything wrong. He should be applauded for inspiring the players to be good sportsmen and good citizens," said Staver. "The Freedom From Religion Foundation is primarily a paper machine. The group writes a lot of letters, sues infrequently, and loses most of the time."
Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told The Christian Post that legal action may be necessary.
"If the coach continues taking the players to church, promoting or participating in student prayers, or otherwise promoting religion to his players or imposing religion upon them, then yes, legal action against the school district would be warranted," said Luchenitser.
"We will continue to monitor this situation and educate the public about it, and would be happy to play a more direct role if assistance is sought by those now involved in the matter."
Luchenitser added that he believed Walker Schools' leadership "does not appear to understand the requirements of the Constitution."
"It is unconstitutional for the coach to take players to church regardless of whether sermons are given at the church," said Luchenitser. "The very act of bringing players into a religious environment such as a church unconstitutionally imposes religion upon them and sends a message of school favoritism of religion."
Public outcry in defense of Mariakis was found on social media, as multiple Facebook groups were created in support of the football coach. These included the open group "We Support Coach Mariakis!! Panther Nation!!" which has at present over 1,400 members and "Support Coach Mariakis," which in the past week has received over 10,000 likes.
On Wednesday, at a press conference Superintendent Raines stated that coach Mariakis was "in compliance" with the law regarding church and state separation.
Cole Chapman, one of the admins for "Support Coach Mariakis," told The Christian Post that he believed the school has handled the situation well.
"I believe the school district did very well addressing the matter," said Chapman, whose Facebook group will be organizing multiple events to show support for Mariakis. "Saying they believe they have done nothing wrong, but will continue to monitor the situation in case changes need to be made was probably the best thing they could have said."
Supporters of Mariakis intend to show up at the Sept. 14 opening season game for the Ridgeland High School football team with banners and shirts.