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Freedom from Religion Foundation sends second letter to Ridgeland H.S.

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Mr. Damon Raines

Superintendent, Walker County Schools

201 South Duke Street, LaFayette, GA 30728

 

Re:        Establishment Clause violations and financial liability

 

Dear Superintendent  Raines:

Since FFRF's August 21st letter, it has come to our attention that Walker County Schools has received an outpouring of "support," including a number of Facebook pages that confirm some of our original allegations and point out additional constitutional violations.  We also understand that Liberty Counsel ("LC") attempted to contact you.   It is possible that the offer from Liberty Counsel never reached you because it was mailed and faxed it to a school board in Jasper, Alabama-some 200 miles from your district. 

The "no cost" offer from LC is disingenuous.  Even with pro bono legal representation, a court battle could cost Walker County taxpayers thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

LC's founder is also the dean of Liberty University Law School , which currently has the distraction of being sued under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt  Organizations Act for allegedly helping kidnap a 10-year-old  girl to Nicaragua.

Facebook pages confirm our original allegations and reveal other violations, including prayers at other sports events and a chaplain at Ridgeland High School

The "Support Coach Mariakis" Facebook page  has provided further evidence to support our claims, including photographic evidence that school employees lead students in unconstitutional prayers.  Matthew Daniel, a former Mariakis team manager, confirmed that Mariakis "talked about the Lord very regularly during pre-game speeches... Because of his Godly example many came to know Jesus Christ as their personal savior!"2   Cole Chapman pointed out that "Prayer is a tradition at Ridgeland High School not just for football but for every single sport."3   The law in our previous letter applies to all sports at public schools, not just football.  Public schools and their employees may not lead, organize, or participate in prayers with their students or student­ athletes.

Comments on that same page have notified us of an additional violation.  According to Angie Fowlkes Pickett, "the fact is Ridgeland has a chaplain, Rocky Bradford, and he leads all prayers...".  Jared Debeny  stated that prayers are "usually led by Rocky Bradford[,] the team chaplain [sic]..."4  It is our understanding that Rocky Bradford is pastor at Sale Creek First Baptist Church in Sale Creek, TN., approximately 35 miles from Ridgeland.

Public high school football teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team, or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain because public schools may not advance or promote religion. See generally, Santa Fe ep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2001 ); (Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992); rVallace v. Jajfree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985); Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1967); Sch. Dis!. a/Abington Twshp. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963); Engel v. Vitale , 370 U.S. 421 (1962).  We request that you investigate this allegation and take appropriate action to divorce the school from any chaplaincy.

 There is no such thing  as a free lunch, or free legal representation from LC

We understand that LC tried to contact you on August 23, 2012, "to discuss strategy for defending the District from a suit" and to claim ·'Liberty Counsel would defend your District on a pro bono basis, at no cost to the school system...." This letter is self-serving and misleading.

First, we sincerely hope that a lawsuit will not be necessary.  The legal precedent is clear, and if the factual allegations in our letter are accurate-and mounting evidence suggests they are­ Ridgeland is violating the First Amendment rights of students.  Fortunately, the violations can be easily corrected.

However, should this complaint progress to a lawsuit it is very likely the District will bear significant costs when it loses.  LC is offering to represent you at no cost, not to pay your legal expenses when you lose the lawsuit.  Attached is a list of cases where LC and groups like it have offered "pro bono" representation, ultimately costing school districts and local governments  vast sums, in some cases over $1,000,000, whey they lost.  Additionally, do not overlook the administrative  cost to the District in paid hours, supplies, and distraction to the students.

LC cites only one legal precedent; a case that  ruled  prayer·at football  games unconstitutional

LC's claims about our letter are misleading.  Our letter alleged far more that LC claims and included photographic evidence, admissions from Coach Mariakis, and admissions from a church that these meals are used as an opportunity to "present the Gospel of Jesus Christ" to the children as support.  We even have a recording of a preacher proselytizing to the players and, thanks to the Ridgeland High School football team 's Facebook page, a few pictures of Coach Mariakis and team chaplain Bradford praying with schoolchildren.  Liberty Counsel ignored this evidence, but courts will not. 

Nor will courts ignore the legal precedent.  The weakness of this case is borne out by other misrepresentations in LC's letter.  The letter cites a single Supreme Court case, Santa Fe Jndep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000), which actually supports FFRF's argument and overturned prayer before football games at a public high school in Texas.  In Santa Fe, the Supreme Court held 6-3 that a school district policy allowing student-led, student-initiated  prayer at football games violated the Establishment Clause. Walker County schools legal ground is even weaker because,  unlike Santa Fe where students  gave the invocation, a government employee, Coach Mariakis, is giving the invocation.  Under this decision, if the District  is allowing  a chaplain access  to the team to deliver  a religious  message it is violating the Constitution. 

In the holding, the Court wrote  that the school district  policy "unquestionably has the purpose and creates the perception of encouraging the delivery of prayer at a series of important school events." !d. at 317.  As evidence, the Court noted that the "invocations are authorized by a government policy and take place on government  property at government-sponsored school­ related events."!d. at 302.  In Walker  County, the evidence  will be stronger  because school employees are leading, organizing, and participating in the prayers.

The take-home message from the Court  is this:  the "preservation and transmission of religious beliefs and worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private sphere." !d. at 310, quoting Lee v. Weisman 505 U.S. 577, 589 (1992).   That is all we ask, for the government, in the form of Walker County Schools  and its employees, to respect  the rights of parents  and students by keeping  religious  ritual, endorsement, or proselytizing out of public schools.

LC alludes  that our position  is to "demand the eradication of faith from public life."  This is simply  not true.  Our goal is to protect  the rights of conscience of every  student  by enforcing the First Amendment.  We wrote you because  an individual has been impacted  by the unconstitutional actions of Ridgeland's football  program.   As Americans, we should  all strive to honor and uphold the First Amendment.  When the government takes a stance  on religion, such as when a public school employee intentionally exposes  his schoolchildren to proselytizing, prayers, and pressure  to attend religious camps,  the rights of every citizen are undermined.  We ask that you stand with, not against, the First Amendment.

 

Andrew  L. Seidel

 

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