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Atheist group accuses north Ga. school of church-state violations

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Ridgeland High School footballA national church-state watchdog has accused a north Georgia high school football coach of legion First Amendment violations.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a prominent Wisconsin-based atheist outfit, sent a complaint this week to Walker County school chiefs accusing a popular football coach at Ridgeland High School of entangling the overtly Christian traditions of prayer and proselytizing with public school athletics.

FFRF counsel asked Walker County superintendent Damon Raines to investigate the “serious state/church concerns” that Ridgeland’s Mark Mariakis had infringed on the First Amendment by often leading his team in prayers, shuttling players to various local churches for pre-game meals wherein pastoral staff blessed the food, and even allegedly mocking a Latter-day Saints church in close proximity to Mormon players.

“It is our information and understanding that Ridgeland High School football coach Mark Mariakis is violating the First Amendment in several ways,” the letter, dated August 21, reads.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that prayers conducted over loudspeakers, even those led by students and not district staff, at public high school football games were unconstitutional because they effectively coerced unassuming participants into an act of worship.

The high court reaffirmed the sentiment in 2008 when it declined to hear a case involving a New Jersey high school football coach whose school system forbade district employees from participating in student-led prayers.

- James Richardson

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