Whether the setting is a map-dot rural community nestled against the mountains or a stretch of inner-city concrete surrounded by a flurry of activity, two common threads -- age-old Southern traditions -- bind the tri-state area. Football and faith are as much a part of the Southern way of life as an autumn breeze rustling the leaves.
But over the past few years a storm has been building, pitting two sides against each another in a competition more intense than any on-field rivalry.
Much the way the old single-wing offense is now obsolete in football, a small but vocal group is working to make prayer at high school football games a thing of the past. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, pursuing complaints from individuals, has become more active in the Chattanooga area in challenging the traditions of pregame prayer over the public address system as well as coaches or administration being involved in any way in prayer with players or students.
South Pittsburg High is the latest area school to be challenged for its student-led prayer practices, yet the implications are wider.
Now those steeped in Bible Belt beliefs and football Friday nights are responding in overwhelming fashion to what they see as an infringement on the South's very way of life.
Responding to a Times Free Press survey, 32 coaches who work in public schools in Tennessee, Georgia or Alabama professed to be Christian; all said they endorse some form of team prayer. Those coaches said they consider the increased activity by the Wisconsin-based foundation a violation of their religious rights and of their ability to mold the boys on their team into moral young men.
"We as coaches fail if we only teach football, so we try to set an example of how a Christian man handles any situation," Ridgeland High coach Mark Mariakis said. "I want the kids to remember that example more than anything they learn on the football field."
That's especially true in this part of the country, coaches said. A recent Gallup poll showed that, for Americans who say they attend church, nine of the nation's top 10 most religious states are in the South, including Alabama (No. 2), Tennessee (No. 6) and Georgia (No. 9).
"This is the South and that's the way it should be," said Sale Creek coach Ron Cox.
Annie-Laurie Gaylor, co-founder and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, sees it differently.
"We're not a Christian nation," she said by telephone Thursday from Madison, Wis. "We have Christians within our nation, but there's a difference. The only reference to religion in the Constitution refers to exclusion. The government doesn't have the right to tell people they have to take part in any religion."
And so the foundation's campaign continues, with public schools one of the prime targets.
It's not only prayers over the PA system and coaches involved in team prayer that have drawn complaints from the foundation. Student-led prayer on public school grounds, whether over the PA, on the field or in the locker room, also violates the Constitution, Gaylor said.
"There really isn't any controversy," Gaylor said. "Prayer of any kind, whether it's student-led or not, is not allowed. The most recent decision on this was 50 years ago, so the fact that tax-supported schools flagrantly violate a constitutional ruling for more than five decades is staggering.
"I would give many of these schools an 'F' in civics for not knowing the Constitution," she said. "The purpose of public high school is to educate, not promote religion. The principals and administrators at schools violating these laws should lose their jobs."
Along with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has carried its fight to eliminate prayer and the mention of God at any function held on public school property across the United States.
Earlier this season, backed by the ACLU, another shot in the spiritual battle was fired when the school system in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., banned student-led prayer. After the head coach had been told he could no longer lead prayer, team members took up the responsibility. However, the new ruling no longer allows prayer of any kind on school property.
"We don't realize how good we've got it until you go outside the South," Mariakis said. "We want to prepare our kids for the battle on Friday nights but we also want to prepare them for the spiritual battle. Make no mistake, there's a spiritual warfare going on and it's for the souls of our kids."
Mariakis has become a local sounding board for other area public school coaches and administrators who have come under fire from the foundation. That includes Marion County administrators, who recently were told that not only could their three high schools no longer have pregame prayer over the PA, but they had to stop allowing students to meet on the field to pray before games.
While the schools stopped PA prayers, they all continue to allow students and fans to meet on the field before games to pray. Two weeks ago, when Marion County's Warriors visited cross-county foe Whitwell, the two fan bases set aside their rivalry to form a prayer circle that stretched around the entire field before the game.
Whitwell coach Billy Barnhart said he still conducts prayer before and after each day's practice as well as prayer in the locker room before taking the field each Friday.
"I'm not a coach who's a Christian, I'm a Christian coach," said Barnhart. "To me, my faith is a big part of who I am, so it's going to be a big part of what I do as a coach.
"As a Christian, I believe our faith is being attacked at all levels, not just in school, but in government, and there's organizations trying to do away with Christianity as much as they can. We need to stand up against those type organizations and let them know we have rights, too."
Like several other area coaches, Barnhart took the team to an off-campus preseason camp that included daily Bible devotionals.
"We had 21 kids get saved at this year's camp," Barnhart said. "I want to win as much as anybody, but if I don't win a single football game this year I feel successful because of those 21 kids who became Christians. Nothing is more important than that."
Barnhart is a former assistant coach at Ridgeland High under Mariakis. Last year, Ridgeland was challenged by the foundation for several "violations," including Mariakis leading his team in prayer, taking the team to a church-sponsored youth service and having local churches provide pregame meals.
"The only thing we changed from all of that last year is that because I'm a state employee, I can't lead our team in prayer," Mariakis said. "We aren't called to be rebels, we want to set a good Christian example and not break the law of the land. But what God did was He lifted up a large group of leaders from our team, players that stepped up to lead us in prayer every day."
Under the Constitution, government is prohibited from promoting religion. Public universities and high schools are government entities, so while a player's personal prayer in the locker room or on the bench is protected by the First Amendment, school employees and resources are not to be involved.
The U.S. Supreme Court has concluded that public high school organized prayers over the loudspeaker at a football game create an appearance of endorsement of religion, regardless of specific faith. The court reasoned that high school students are more susceptible to school or peer pressure, so therefore prayer over the PA is not to be allowed.
Standing in front of a group of teenage boys whose hair is matted with sweat and grime, Ider (Ala.) coach Brent Tinker concludes each day's practice and every Friday night postgame speech by charging his team with the question, "Whose Father?"
Tinker's booming voice is met by his players, who answer loudly in unison, "Our Father, who art in Heaven," continuing to recite the Lord's prayer.
Nearly identical scenarios play out each day after practice and each Friday night before and after games, both on the field and in locker rooms, as area coaches continue the tradition of blending the gridiron with the gospel.
"We have players or our chaplain that lead us in prayer, and they can do whatever they want to me, but there's been times when I've led the team in prayer and other coaches have led it, too," said Polk County coach Derrick Davis. "That's how we'll continue to do things here. We're not forcing it on anybody. We're not doing it as a show, it's us in our locker room or on our practice field praying as a team."
Davis added that he cuts practices short on Wednesdays to allow players to attend church and even excuses players from practice if it's for a church-related issue. Polk County is also one of several area schools that still conduct prayer over the PA system before each game.
"You can share your faith without saying a word," Red Bank coach E.K. Slaughter said. "A lot of it is just how you live your life. Our actions as coaches and men speak for the type example we want to set for how we live our lives. I can see their point of view, I just don't agree with it."
According to Gaylor, most of the complaints about violating the Constitution's ban on public-school prayer comes from Southern states, and Tennessee ranks in the foundation's top 10 for most complaints received nationally. Many of the 45 letters of complaint from Tennessee this year have come from the Chattanooga area, she said.
"I do believe the South is more religious than the rest of the country," said Gaylor. "But the government isn't allowed to take sides in religion, regardless of if it's Christian, Muslim or any faith. Public schools can not endorse any religious activity."
Of the 82 players on Central High School's roster, junior kicker Tareq Faleh is the only Muslim, surrounded by predominantly Christian teammates. But the debate over religious freedom and whether prayer should be a part of Friday night football hasn't affected Faleh's enjoyment of the game. When the team gathers for prayer, typically led by a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Faleh joins the rest of the Purple Pounders in bowing his head.
"I've never been uncomfortable with any of it or felt left out, even when they pray something in Jesus' name," Faleh said. "It's always positive stuff and it's interesting to hear how other people believe. Everyone should be allowed to pray however they want and express what they believe. That's what makes this country so great.
"To me, I'm a part of this team, so I join my teammates because that's what they want to do and I bow out of respect for them. I always want to be there for my team because I know they would be there for me. That's what being part of a team is about."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...