Wrestling team takes the fight off the mat - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

Wrestling team takes the fight off the mat

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Since the ’90s, members of the wrestling team at Parkersburg South High School have voluntarily worn a T-shirt under their warm up uniforms that some say started in an attempt to show support and love for former head wrestling coach, Paul Jackson.

From 1990-1997, Jackson coached the Patriots to state titles, including three straight from 1995-1997. Jackson stepped down following the 1997 season after he and his wife, Rose, suffered the death of their young son, Jeremiah.

The Bible verse Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Him that strengthens me,” is the verse etched across the t-shirts that Bill Merriman, an attorney who represented a wrestling team member and his parents, said signified “support and love for their coach and friend.”

Since the students voluntarily began wearing the T-shirts more than 20 years ago, no one complained. Until now.

One complaint

After receiving one complaint from a local resident, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group which states its purpose is “to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church and to educate the public on matters related to nontheism,” sent a letter to the county claiming the display of scripture on the T-shirts, and also painted on the gym’s wrestling room wall and displayed as the motto on the team’s website, violated the “separation of church and state.”

Patrick Elliott, an attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the organization took particular issue with the team’s motto being scripture.

“We needed to point out the obvious fact that this cannot be a team’s motto,” he said.

However, Jayme Fife, a resident of Williamstown, said she doesn’t see the use of scripture for a motto as the school endorsing or advancing religion.

“If it inspires youth to be a part of something, to be part of a team, to part of an organization, if it inspires them to be better, I don’t see why it’s such a big deal that, OK, this particular one happens to come from the Bible,” Fife said.

In response to the organization’s allegations, Pat Law, superintendent of Wood County schools, asked the team to remove the motto from its website. The writing on the gym’s wrestling room wall also has been covered with fresh paint.

Fighting for shirts

When it comes to the issue of the shirts, both students and community members are fighting to keep them.

According to Merriman, the shirts, which Principal Thomas Eschbacher said he assumes were bought and paid for by wrestling boosters, are perfectly legal.

“It’s not part of the official uniform,” Merriman said. “If a student athlete doesn’t want to wear that shirt, they don’t have to. It’s not a requirement. It’s not part of the official uniform.”

Merriman said the shirts were paid for by parents of the wrestlers and he pointed out that they were worn underneath the wrestler’s warm up attire. He also pointed out what seemed like a double standard that led to frustration for the parents and children.

“They don’t understand how somebody can come along after all these years and say, ‘you can’t wear that,’’’ he said. “It’s frustrating for the parents because they see a lot of other T-shirts being worn by students that are certainly not religious — but they are offensive. Nobody is saying they can’t wear those shirts.”

For those who argue wearing the T-shirts can potentially alienate those who choose not to wear them, Merriman has a very simple and short response.

“The First Amendment swings both ways,” he said.

While “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” often is recited, many argue the section which states “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” is often ignored or unacknowledged.

Robert G. Natelson, author of “The Original Meaning of the Establishment Clause,” argues that not only is the free exercise of religion not meant to be prohibited, but “that the purpose of the ‘no establishment’ policy was to protect free exercise.”

Both Merriman and Travis Webster, director for the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council, said student expression is usually protected as long as it is not “disruptive to the educational process.”

“Generally speaking, when students take action, the law will generally protect that,” Webster said.

New school organization

In order to come up with a solution, Merriman said he “had to think a little outside of the box.”

The result — the creation of a new school organization on April 24, The Parkersburg South Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which Merriman said clearly complies with the Supreme Court rulings on separation of church and state.

Merriman said his clients are satisfied with the resolution and he thinks all the legal issues with his clients have been resolved.

Although the shirts themselves will look slightly different from the originals worn voluntarily by wrestling team members, Merriman said the parents are happy they can “carry on the tradition of allowing their children to wear the shirt with the (Philippians 4:13) Bible verse.”

With Eschbacher’s approval, the debated scripture will adorn the FCA t-shirts.

Community support

Since the onset of the ordeal, Merriman said the “support of the community has been unbelievable” and it has “brought the community closer together.” Residents have taken to the Parkersburg South Wrestling’s Facebook page to pen their support and words of encouragement. Parkersburg resident and owner of Rubin’s Deli, Brad Woodburn, displayed a prominent sign that read “Hey Wisconsin mind your own business.”

He also thinks school officials should have stood up to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

“Stand up for the kids, that’s what it’s about,” he said. “And if a few choose to want to have that on their shirt, that’s fine. It wasn’t forced or anything.”

To show their support, community members also created t-shirts with the symbolic scripture that anyone could purchase. Nearly 4,000 shirts have been ordered and purchased. They have even been shipped outside the Mountain State to states including: Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Alaska, Washington, Florida, Missouri, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Michigan, Indiana, Kansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, Iowa and Wisconsin.

Vehicle window decals have also been made for community purchase.

Defending right to free exercise

When it comes to exercising one’s freedom of religion, Merriman suggested getting creative and taking advantage of the outlets current technology offers.

Webster said focusing on the legal and public discussion is important, while disregarding any personally or politically motivated biases.

A common problem when similar allegations are brought to other institutions and facilities, Webster said, is that the entity that the allegations are brought against sometimes simply concedes to the demands to avoid a costly and potential lawsuit, taking the advice of the group bringing the charges as law.

What’s important to remember, he said, is that the group bringing the charges doesn’t have the other’s best interests at heart.

“The (Freedom From Religion Foundation) is not the attorney advising the school district what the law is,” he said. “It’s important to get accurate advice.”

According to Webster, the current interpretation of the Establishment Clause is in a confused state and is inconsistent with the way public debate has occurred. It is rare that controversy involves any religion but Christianity, he said.

Silencing that right is not what the Founding Fathers intended, Webster said. According to Natelson’s findings, that belief is again brought to the forefront.

He argues that evidence reveals the Establishment Clause has an originally theistic orientation, being “comprised of religious enthusiasts who certainly did not favor government neutrality on the subject of religion in general.”

While Natelson argues that the “religious enthusiasts” did not condone the creation of a nationally mandated religion, he said “they shared the public consensus that government should foster religion.” Moreover, he said, “these groups would have perceived any suggestion that they wanted a ‘wall of separation’ between state and faith not as a compliment, nor even as a description, but as an insult. For them, the relationship between good government and religion was interactive and symbiotic, rather than rigid and distant.”

Fast forward more than 200 years and the applicable interpretation of the Establishment Clause has involved prayer, monuments of the 10 Commandments outside courthouses, the Pledge of Allegiance’s “Under God” phrase, “In God We Trust” on currency, as well as many others.

While the high court’s decisions regarding those issues have varied, Chief Justice William Rehnquist voiced what he thought to be a troubling trend in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe in 2000. The case involved reciting prayer over the school’s public address system.

While the majority opinion found that “the delivery of such a message — is not property characterized as ‘private speech,’’’ Rehnquist wrote for the dissenting opinion.

According to Rehnquist, “The Court distorts existing precedent to conclude that the school district’s student-message program is invalid on its face under the Establishment Clause. But even more disturbing than its holding is the tone of the Court’s opinion; it bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life.”

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