UPDATE: Walker County schools official response to FFRF
UPDATE: Damon Raines, Superintendent of the Walker County School System, responded to the Freedom From Religion Foundation's Andrew Seidel in a letter dated Thursday and released to WRCB Friday.
Raines letter states the school "...disagree with your portrayal of some of the events and facts as set forth in your correspondence" and goes further to say the the events referenced have been portrayed inaccurately.
"For instance, it appears your correspondence has put together bits and pieces of articles, quotes and occurrences out of context which gives an inaccurate picture of what actually has or has not taken place," the letter continues.
ROSSVILLE, Ga. (WRCB) -- Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines is standing behind Ridgeland High football coach Mark Mariakis.
Raines joined Mariakis in a press conference Wednesday afternoon to support the coach against allegations made by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, saying Mariakis and his program have done nothing to violate student rights when it comes to religious activities.
Raines said the school board is finalizing it's official response to the FFRF, and plans to release it within the next 48 hours. Raines refused to go into the specifics of the response until then, but did note "a number of false allegations." in the two complaint letters it received from the FFRF.
"The Walker County Board of Education feels we are in compliance with all federal and state laws, and will continue to monitor and scrutinize areas that are considered questionable," Raines said in a prepared statement.
Mariakis also read from a prepared statement in which he thanked community members and school and team officials for their "overwhelming" support. The veteran coach also vowed to continue his efforts to be a positive influence on his players and students.
"At this point, I think the issues have been aired and all questions have been carefully addressed," Mariakis said. "High school athletics, along with academics, are a very important part of the lives of many of our students. We will continue to foster positive relationships with our players as we strive for excellence on the field of play.
"Like all worthwhile endeavors, successful sports programs require a great commitment of time, effort and hard work. Now is the time for the Ridgeland football team to stay on task and focus on the football season. We have one mind, one heart and one team."
Senior linebacker Daniel Johnson displayed that mindset, taking prayer requests and leading the team in a group prayer before practice Wednesday afternoon. It's a practice Raines said is well within the rights of the students and violates no laws.
"Anything that is student-led is completely up to that student, just as any student who does not want to attend has the choice to walk away," Raines said.
One of the FFRF's complaints detailed pastors preaching to the football team during pregame meals held at local churches throughout the season.
Raines said team meals at a variety of local churches is a long-standing tradition, and that will not change. However, if he discovers any churches are preaching to the school's players in such settings, it will be stopped.
"We have a large amount of community support in Walker County, not only from churches, but civic organizations and individuals, as well," Raines said. "There will be certain areas of that we take into consideration, and if we have to change certain practices we will, but right now we will continue that tradition."
Ridgeland opens the season this Friday night at defending Class AA state champion Calhoun. The game will be featured as Channel 3's Friday Night Football Game of the Week.