Group Offers Legal Help After Atheists Claim Ga. Churches Can't Feed School Football Team

A religious freedom group has offered counsel and legal defense to a county school board in Georgia that received threats from atheists claiming that taking high school football teams to churches for a free meal is "unconstitutional."

Liberty Counsel wrote to Georgia's Walker County Public School Board on Thursday offering legal help after the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) issued threats for carrying on with the tradition where 10 churches in Rossville, Ga., take turns feeding the Ridgeland Panthers football team before games.

"A church has as much right as any other local civic organization to provide pregame meals to members and guests, even if they are a part of the local high school football team," Liberty Counsel Attorney Richard Mast wrote in his letter.

The Constitution does not demand the eradication of faith from public life nor prohibit churches from participating in the life of the local community, maintains the Fla.-based group, an international nonprofit, litigation, education, and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family.

FFRF made numerous assertions on Tuesday, including the claim that "taking public school football teams to church, even for a meal, is unconstitutional." The atheist group also objected to Coach Mark Mariakis' participation or presence during post-game prayer; his "using Bible verses on team apparel and in team speeches;" his "participation in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes;" and allegations about his supposed "pressuring public school students to attend a Christian football camp."

"We understand that at these events (church meal), the church's preacher sermonizes to the players 'about the Christian religion.' 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 atheists' letter alleged.

Mariakis survived brain cancer in 2008-2009, and is entering his ninth season at Ridgeland with a 52-36 record.

The first meal and game of the season is scheduled for next Friday.

"This atheist group continues to lick stamps and send frivolous letters with militant zeal designed to hurt communities because of its anti-Christian fixation," said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel. "Nothing in the Constitution requires communities to abandon common sense and create zones hostile to religion."

FFRF's letter urges districts to adopt harmful and counter-productive policies that would discriminate against religion, and which in turn would expose the district to civil liability, says Liberty Counsel.

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