To the two of you out there still reading after that first sentence, thank you. It means a lot that you didn’t immediately run away screaming or rip this page out of the paper and set it afire.
To those who know me, who see me at community meetings and events, you’ve probably noticed that I don’t participate in the ritual invocation that takes place before every city council and county commissioner meeting. I don’t stand. I don’t pray. I don’t mean to offend, but because I am myself offended, I don’t want to participate.
You see, technically, those prayers are illegal. The Supreme Court has made countless rulings to this effect in the past decade alone. The Freedom From Religion Foundation specializes in reminding local governments of this, many of whom never realized, or never cared, or never had anyone complain about it.
But just because something is tradition, just because it’s always been done and no one has complained, doesn’t mean it should continue.
The same with the alleged prayers and sermons that Ridgeland High School football coach Mark Mariakis is either leading or allowing to happen in front of his team, on school ground, and while operating as a school official.
You want to have a prayer before a game? Fine. You feel the need to invoke a higher power before making official government decisions? Knock yourself out. Just not after the gavel has banged. Not on government time, and not on government property. Not led by a government official.
Because, technically speaking, that’s what public school teachers and coaches are: government officials. The moment that bell rings, the moment that a teacher steps through the threshold of the school, the moment that a coach calls his team together – at that moment, that individual ceases to be. There is no Mark Mariakis. There is just a coach. An adult, entrusted with a high school football team. No matter what his or her personal beliefs, a teacher must mentally and emotionally shed the robe of the personal and put on the robe of the public whenever acting in his or her position.
That is the inherent trust that parents put on public school teachers and coaches – that they will treat every student equally and work hard to give them all the best possible instruction in the task at hand, without any unnecessary interference from personal bias or beliefs.
If Mr. Mariakis is taking his team to a pre-game dinner at a local church, and that dinner includes a planned, expected sermon from a church leader, he is violating that trust.
If Mr. Mariakis is praying in front of his team before a game, expecting the students to join in, he is violating that trust.
If Mr. Mariakis is using bible verses on public school team apparel and as supposedly motivational tools in pre-game speeches, he is violating that trust.
If Mr. Mariakis is pressuring his team members to attend a Christian football camp, he is violating that trust.
Because no matter what the local majority opinion on faith may be, no matter if it may be the same as Mr. Mariakis, it does not make it right to espouse it in that setting.
Because there will always be the differing opinion. You may not see it. You may not hear it spoken. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
There will always be the student who feels pressured to conform religiously. The one who doesn’t take comfort in the pre-game prayers, but is made uncomfortable by them. The one who hears teachers speak of heaven and hell on school time and feels his or her stomach drop in confusion and shame. The one who may be a bit different, bullied, strange. The one who is afraid to speak up, afraid of the comments from teachers, coaches, peers. The one who goes through the motions every day, every practice, every Sunday, who has no one to turn to, because between preaching teachers and preaching parents and preaching preachers, there is no one left who might understand. Who might listen and not judge.
As much as any one person feels deeply in his or her heart that their own prayer and faith is right and comforting and good, there will always be someone else of a different religion or of no religion that feels just as deeply, upon hearing those prayers in a public setting, that it is wrong, personally, for him or her.
Is that really so hard to accept?
In a conservative area like Walker County, the ostracism endured by a non-Christian or non-religious student in cases like these is staggeringly reminiscent of that which a GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) teen must experience when struggling with people who can't accept his or her identity. How devastating that must feel, being constantly told that what your body and your heart know to be right is inherently wrong, and needs correcting. That you need to be “brought back into the fold” just for being who you are. Using the fear of an eternal punishment to discourage certain behaviors and beliefs is just plain manipulative. It smacks of the same persecution that this country's founding fathers were trying to escape when they drafted the Constitution of the United States, ensuring that every person had the inalienable right to freedom of religion.
And that includes freedom from religion.
As an atheist, I personally don’t care what you believe. I’m not trying to convert anybody. I just don’t want the law broken, and I don’t want anyone to feel ostracized for his or her belief, or lack thereof.
Students who want to pray before a football game are free to do so – privately, or in small, student-led groups. Not with their coach.
Local city and county officials are free to pray for guidance before a meeting if they feel they need it, but not during the meeting itself. Not scheduled on the agenda.
Maybe now other people will speak up. Maybe some teachers and government officials will search their own hearts and motivations and realize that they, in perhaps the best of intentions, have been less than equalizing and fair to their students and constituents.
Diversity makes a biological community strong. It can do the same for a social one, if we let it.
The French writer Alexis de Toqueville visited America in its infancy to report back to a monarchy-controlled Europe his impressions of the new, experimental democratic republic form of government. What struck him most was the potential for majority public opinion to become oppressive, a condition he called “tyranny of the majority.”
“In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them... in democratic republics; there the body is left free, and the soul is enslaved. The master no longer says: "You shall think as I do or you shall die"; but he says: "You are free to think differently from me and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but you are henceforth a stranger among your people. You may retain your civil rights, but they will be useless to you, for you will never be chosen by your fellow citizens if you solicit their votes; and they will affect to scorn you if you ask for their esteem. You will remain among men, but you will be deprived of the rights of mankind. Your fellow creatures will shun you like an impure being; and even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they should be shunned in their turn.”
Sad to see that the old Frenchman was right.
Christi McEntyre is a reporter with the Walker County messenger. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (706) 638-1859.