PARKERSBURG - An attorney representing a Parkersburg South High School student-athlete has suggested forming a Fellowship of Christian Athletes to address concerns over the use of a Bible verse as a motto for the wrestling team.
Bill Merriman sent a letter to Parkersburg South Principal Tom Eschbacher Thursday asking the student be allowed to organize an alliance supervised by wrestling coach Donna Dixon and Lubeck Elementary School teacher Paula DeLong.
"The name of this alliance will be Parkersburg South Fellowship of Christian Athletes," the letter says. "The motto of the alliance will be Philippians 4:13, 'I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.'"
To be established, student clubs must have a faculty sponsor and be approved by the school principal. Eschbacher said Thursday afternoon he had granted that approval.
The Philippians 4:13 verse has been associated with the wrestling team for years. It was posted on the team's website, painted over a gymnasium door and printed on T-shirts worn by team members.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, on behalf of an area resident, sent a letter to Wood County Schools earlier this month saying using the verse as a motto was an improper promotion of religion by the public school system.
The motto was recently taken off of the website, which links to the school district's site, and the chapter and verse number painted over in the gymnasium.
"The removal of those was proper under the law," Merriman said.
But Merriman said the formation of the Christian athletes group is aimed at ensuring those actions do not extend to students' attire.
"Those student-athletes who are members can wear that motto on their T-shirts and have the right to freedom of expression," he said.
Merriman said he understood some students were told not to wear the T-shirts, although Wood County Schools Superintendent Pat Law said in a previous interview he took no actions prohibiting students from doing so. Eschbacher said students weren't told not to wear the shirts and there is no prohibition against wearing attire that bears scripture.
"They just can't wear them if they've been purchased by the school or anyone affiliated with the school," he said.
That includes booster organizations, which Eschbacher confirmed did buy the original shirts in question. However, he said more people have been purchasing shirts featuring the verse in light of the controversy over them and at this point it would be difficult to prove which shirts were bought by boosters and which were paid for by other individuals.
Merriman said the shirts were never part of the uniform and students were not required to wear them.
Patrick Elliott, staff attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said earlier this week the T-shirts were not the focus of the group's complaint, but a "symptom" of the larger issue. Informed of the proposed formation of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes group Thursday, Elliott said he did not see a problem with it.
"That sounds like exactly the appropriate channel for that sort of religious expression," he said.
Although the foundation has taken legal action against schools and other public entities over religious displays, Elliott said earlier this week he did not anticipate that happening in this situation based on the actions of the school district.
Eschbacher said Merriman had been in contact with district officials and Wood County Prosecutor Jason Wharton, the school system's legal counsel, about the issue.
"I thanked him (Merriman) for his assistance in helping to resolve this issue," Eschbacher said. "His approach to this is a very sound approach."