When a Public High School Football Coach Takes His Team to Church for Food and Sermons, Why Is Anyone Defending Him?

Ridgeland High School in Rossville, Georgia has a problem.

The football team is led by someone who thinks it’s his duty to preach to students instead of just coaching them. According to a letter (PDF) the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent the Walker County Schools superintendent:

… on game day, [coach Mark] Mariakis takes the football team to a local church for dinner. We understand that at these events the church’s preacher sermonizes to the players “about the Christian religion”… News reports show that Mariakis leads the team in pre- or post-game prayers. Our complainant reports that Mariakis uses Bible verses on team gear, such as shirts, and in speeches to excite the team… Finally, we have been told that Mariakis pressures players to attend a “Christian football camp that the players have to pay for” and that Mariakis “looks down upon” those who do not attend…

Just to flaunt it, this picture was posted on the team’s Facebook page just a day ago:

How’s that for admitting guilt?

So how is everyone reacting to this news?

Take a guess.

Liberty Counsel offered to defend the school district for free (never denying that churches are brought in to minister to the team):

In its letter to the school superintendent, FFRF makes a number of assertions, leading off with the most ridiculous: “Taking public school football teams to church, even for a meal, is unconstitutional.” Traditionally, ten churches in Rossville, Georgia, take turns feeding the Ridgeland Panthers football team before games. The first meal and game of the season will be on August 31, 2012, unless the FFRF has its way.

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

The Solid Rock Baptist Church — one of the churches feeding the students — brags about preaching to the public school football players on its website:

This is the 2nd year that SRBC has fed the Ridgeland High School football team before their Friday night game. This is going to be a yearly event at SRBC for several years to come. Bro. Larry Scott spoke to 65 people at this event and presented the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We praise the Lord for this important outreach event to our community.

FOX News Channel is flipping out, bringing on two lawyers who seem to know nothing about the First Amendment and have no knowledge of the case law calling this very practice unconstitutional (which FFRF cites in its letter):

Cohen admits that if there’s prayer at the churches, there may be a problem. And we have proof that there’s active proselytizing taking place.

At one point, he says if this were unconstitutional, FFRF would just file a lawsuit. That’s not the case. FFRF tries hard not to file lawsuits if the issue can be resolved by the school itself. Their letters warn school districts about the problem and the consequences if they don’t correct the matter at hand. Right now, this district has a chance to fix the mistake. If they choose not to, a lawsuit would probably be forthcoming (assuming FFRF could get a plaintiff with standing for the case).

Todd Starnes (Also of FOX News) amazingly points to a pastor who thinks Christians are the victims here:

The Chattanooga Valley Baptist Church is scheduled to provide a meal for the football team in late October.

Richie White, the church’s youth director, said he was quite surprised to hear that an outside group had issues with feeding children.

“It would be interesting to see what part of the Constitution we violated by simply offering a meal to fellow Americans,” he told Fox News. “These are [kids] from our area that we do love and we do care about.”

White said several members of the church youth group are on the football squad — and it’s been a tradition to show their support for school athletics.
“We as Christians don’t force our religion on anyone,” he said, suggesting that perhaps Christians are treated differently.

“We’re being persecuted because we believe there is a God who created us,” White said. “I don’t think there’s an equal playing field because we base our lives and our views on the Scripture.”

The Christian Post headline reads “Atheists Attack Church for Feeding High School Football Players”… which is wrong on two counts.

Atheists aren’t “attacking” anybody. And they’re certainly not criticizing the churches. FFRF is criticizing the public school for letting a coach turn his football team into the targets of Christian ministry.

Religious Right leader Bryan Fischer says the Constitution doesn’t ban prayer before football games, so it’s ok! But this is a public school and the prayer is coach-led, and courts have said time and again: That is illegal. But he has to chime in or else he’ll become irrelevant. (Funny note: He actually uses the phrase “grinds my gears.”)

All of these people are trying to rationalize an illegal practice.

Let’s face it: If this were a Muslim coach and local imams were preaching to the children while serving them dinner, these conservatives would be up in arms in the other direction, calling for the firing of all the adults involved.

But we’re talking about Christianity. So everything must be legal, right?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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