By David Purdum / For the AJC
Even the most outspoken football coaches, guys who will talk your ear off about the elements of the perfect screen pass, can become tight-lipped when the topic turns to religion and their team.
“I would prefer to have discussions/interviews on the topic of football and game performances,” one prominent Georgia high school coach said.
Multiple coaches refused to discuss how they address religion with their teams. In an age of ultra-political correctness, it’s hard to blame them. Few things, if any, spark more passionate debate than religion.
“It starts with respect. We want to make sure that we respect everyone’s beliefs, first and foremost,” said Milton High School athletic director Gary Sylvestri. “When it comes to religion, we try to separate it from football, keeping coaches out of it.”
Sylvestri estimates that 30 percent of the Milton football team regularly participates in Fellowship of Christian Athletes events, which are student-driven, voluntary and held after school hours.
“We have a very diverse school and team,” Sylvestri added. “I couldn’t tell you all the different religions, but we try to respect everyone’s beliefs.”
But some public school coaches do address religion with their teams. And some cross a line that has attracted attention from religious freedom advocates.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent 24 complaint letters to Georgia schools this year, according to staff attorney Rebecca Markert.
“We wrote to 47 states, including [District of Columbia] in 2011, and Georgia ranked 19th,” Markert said in an email. “The top five were Texas, Wisconsin, California, Michigan and Ohio respectively. I don’t have the rankings yet for 2012- we do that at the end of the year-but it appears [Georgia] would be higher than average for 2012.”
Ridgeland High School football coach Mark Mariakis is the target of one of the recent complaint letters. The FFRF alleges Mariakis used his influence to promote his religious beliefs to his players by holding pre-game meals at churches, encouraging them to attend a Christian-based football camp among other faith-based acts.
“We ask that the coach separates his religious views from his job and not take advantage of his position of authority to spread his beliefs,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-President of the FFRF.
The FFRF has received angry, profanity-laced emails and even a death threat in response to their complaint against Mariakis.
Mariakis has not returned multiple phone messages and emails asking for comment on the complaint. Walker County Superintendent Damon Raines also has not responded to emails and messages left with his office.
Meanwhile, the North Georgia community of Rossville is rallying behind Mariakis. Signs expressing support can be seen around town, according to Adrian Hullander, a 2009 graduate of Ridgeland High School, who teamed with other residents to create a Facebook page in support of Mariakis.
“We put it up and got 5,000 likes on the first day,” Hullander said.
The page had more than 9,200 “Likes” as of Tuesday morning. Residents also are organizing a car wash to raise money for T-shirts in support of Mariakis.
Hullander says the team has several members of different religions, including atheists, and “none of them have ever said anything about being uncomfortable.”
Ridgeland opens its season at No. 1 Calhoun on Friday.