Sometimes when the Religious Right is on the wrong side of the U.S. Constitution, it likes to use the old “majority rules” argument to justify its bad actions.
Consider the case of Mark Mariakis, football coach at Ridgeland High School in Rossville, Ga. The Freedom From Religion Foundation alleged recently that Mariakis is a serial violator of church-state separation. According to complaints, he took his team to churches for meals and proselytizing, led players in prayer, put Bible verses on team clothing and pressured his players to attend Christian football camps during the summer.
The complaint asks that Walker County Schools investigate the allegations immediately and take action to stop any future violations of the First Amendment.
Rossville is not far from Chattanooga, Tenn., so we’re talking serious Bible Belt here. You can probably guess what happened next. Almost instantly after the complaint was made public, a Facebook community page called “Support Coach Mariakis” popped up. It now has more than 9,300 “likes.”
One supporter posted on the page: “I really dont no (sic) wat (sic) happen from when I went 2 school we had prayer an sang the Pledge of Alligance (sic) wat (sic) has happen 2 people tryin (sic) 2 stop prayer anywhere God will judge those people.”
From another supporter: “Shake it off coach. There are so many to get saved, and so little time. Dont (sic) back down.”
I’m sure Mariakis is happy to have the support, but that support means absolutely nothing in a court of law. For a public school employee to lead students in sectarian prayer at an organized school event is bad enough, but if Mariakis did, in fact, take students to churches and pressure them to attend Christian camps, then he is clearly guilty of violating the First Amendment.
What’s more, if Mariakis were a Muslim, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. The community would have launched a “Fire Coach Mariakis” Facebook page instead. But this community doesn’t see anything wrong here, because it’s hard for many of them to imagine anyone having a problem with an open endorsement of Christianity.
But at least some local people do have a problem with it. Denise Etheridge, assistant editor of the Walker County Messenger, said in a column this week that “just because some in the community are used to doing things a certain way ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it,’ doesn’t make it right.”
She went on to condemn Mariakis’ alleged activities, and instructed parents who want prayer in schools to “send [your children] to a private school of your choice. Do not expect children of many different faiths — or those being raised without religious instruction — to pray in the name of the majority’s god in a taxpayer-funded school.”
Even Mariakis’ fellow coaches have not been very sympathetic to their peer – at least publicly. One coach told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “I would prefer to have discussions/interviews on the topic of football and game performances” rather than religion. Another told the newspaper, “We want to make sure that we respect everyone’s beliefs, first and foremost. When it comes to religion, we try to separate it from football, keeping coaches out of it.”
Those who support Mariakis may have a loud voice and they may even be a majority locally, but that’s hardly enough to justify violating the Constitution. Thankfully all that matters as far as courts are concerned is guilt or innocence, and it sounds like Mariakis is guilty of violating the First Amendment. If this matter ends up in the legal system, it won’t matter how much noise Mariakis and his supporters make. They won’t be able to drown out a court decision ordering him to stop.