The FFRF, a Wisconsin-based group, alleges that Ridgeland football coach Mark Mariakis allowed churches to prepare meals and feed the football team, including at least one meal that included preaching. The foundation delivered its first complaint on Aug. 21, which has locals discussing First Amendment rights and the concept of separation of church and state.
The team meal serves a few primary objectives, the most important being to provide a healthy well-balanced meal that will benefit the athlete during the game.
It can serve as a convenience when teams are traveling a long distance to compete with opponents and it gives equal nourishment to all players, some of which may be under-privileged and unable to eat as regularly.
As part of the FFRF complaint a link to an audio recording from Larry Scott of Solid Rock Baptist Church was included. During a team meal, Scott gave an impassioned 15-minute sermon (on Ephesians Chapter 2) in which he emphatically engaged players.
“You know there is nothing worse than somebody who comes in and claims to be a Christian, and then you turn around and find out he is a lying piece of crap,” Scott told players. Scott’s voice loudly strains at times, sounding a bit more like a boxing coach than a pastor. Several attempts were made to contact Scott by phone, but were unsuccessful.
Photos on the church’s website, which claims 65 people attended, show players and coaches enjoying a hearty chicken dinner. followed by Scott’s speech.
“It was a pretty strong Gospel presentation,” Terry Chitwood of Chattanooga Valley Baptist Church said. “Only (Solid Rock Baptist Church) can examine their heart as to why they did it. If we have to smash people with the Gospel or beat them up with it, I feel that there is a good chance they won’t hear it.”
The Ridgeland Panthers are tentatively scheduled to attend Chattanooga Valley Baptist Church in October for a team meal. The team has been to the church three of the previous four years, according to Chitwood.
“We go about it with the philosophy that we’re being a good neighbor to this community. When they come here, they strictly come in, get situated around the table. We give a blessing to the food, then they eat and leave,” Chitwood said. Bible readings and speeches are not part of the meal, he said.
For the past two years a meal has also been provided to Ridgeland High School band members. “We took the food to the school and fed them outside the band room,” Chitwood said.
A church could voluntarily provide a meal, if coaches took no role in the process, and players opted to attend the privately held event, according to Andrew Seidel with FFRF.
“When a teacher (or coach) suggests something to you as a student, the immense pressure that you feel, not only from them but from your peers to go along, is coercive,” Seidel said. “We’re not trying to stop students from practicing their religion.”
Chitwood said the church wants to continue to provide food for the team, even if no prayer or blessing could be given. Players could then bless their own food or have a moment of silence if desired.
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes held a regional event at Chattanooga Valley Baptist Church, which was attended by several local football teams (but not Ridgeland) in previous years.
“The biggest key for me is they’re not forced to come (to the church),” Chitwood said. “I don’t believe forcing the boys to hear the Gospel is going to encourage their heart to be open and hear it.”
Random student-led prayer would also be allowed, according to Seidel, so long as no employee of the school district was in attendance.
“Our goal is to make sure the Constitution is being upheld,” Seidel said.
Seidel agreed that if Mariakis were a guest speaker at a church, student athletes and even the Fellowship of Christian Athletes could chose to attend. However Mariakis could not mention the event when he was teaching or while coaching the team, he said.