The FFRF alleged that Ridgeland High School football coach Mariakis breached separation of church-state by allowing churches to prepare meals and feed the football team, including at least one meal that included preaching; leading prayers with his team after games; using Bible verses in motivational speeches and on team shirts; and holding Christian football camps during summer break.
The foundation delivered letters on Aug. 21 and Aug. 27, both written by Andrew Seidel.
“Your complaints are taken very seriously, and each enumerated complaint stated in your correspondence has been carefully reviewed,” Raines wrote to Seidel. “Walker County School System is concerned that each person within the system (student and employee) is afforded his or her constitutional rights.”
School officials disagree with how Seidel portrayed some of the allegations. Quotes from an article involved a “former RHS graduate” and were not consistent with Seidel’s accusations, Raines said.
“No basis could be found to support your statement that Coach Mariakis made fun of the Mormon religion or any religion,” Raines said.
School officials agreed that “no player or team member of any sport may be preached to while participating in a sport,” Raines said.
The pre-game meals in question have previously been provided by both religious and secular organizations at churches and other venues, including public restaurants, he said.
The letter assures Seidel that “there will be no religious references” during pre-game meals this season. It also states that school system employees “may not be involved in prayer at school-sponsored activities or during school hours.”
Raines maintains that student-led prayer is allowed by the Constitution, but “will not be conducted during an impermissible time” during teacher instruction time.
The school system’s investigation did not uncover any evidence that Mariakis had led the team in prayer, before or after the games. School system employees will not participate in pre-game or post-game prayers in the future; those traditions will only involve students that want to participate, Raines said.
The football team will not have a team chaplain to perform prayers, leaving students to initiate prayer as desired, he said.
There was no established practice of putting Bible verses on team apparel by Mariakis, according to the letter.
Mariakis serves only as a chaperone for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and those meetings are “voluntary and student initiated,” Raines said.
Raines also details that employees can participate in religious activities when it is outside the scope of their responsibility, even if it is on school property.
Seidel’s assertion that Mariakis pressured students to attend a Christian football camp were unfounded, according to Raines.
“That has not been the practice in the past nor will it be the practice of Coach Mariakis in the future,” he said.
The allegations have brought a tidal wave of supporters that validate the hard work of school system employees and the “excellent football program headed by Coach Mariakis,” Raines said.
“The Walker County System will in the future, as in the past, work tirelessly to provide a quality education for all of its students in all programs, both athletic and academic, in an atmosphere that respects the rights of all of its students and employees,” Raines said.