The Freedom From Religion Foundation is raising objections to the recent baptism of several football players at a Georgia public high school.
A number of football players were reportedly baptized on Sept. 14 after school on the property of Heritage High School in Ringgold, Ga. A video posted on social media shows the students undergoing the religious ceremony and the head football coach, E.K. Slaughter, leading the event with opening and closing remarks. Indications are that the event was organized as a memorial to a deceased recent Heritage High School graduate.
In the video, a large group of students and several adults are standing around a large utility tub on school property. Coach Slaughter opens the event with a speech to the students waiting to be baptized. He then yields the floor to another adult, who gives what is basically a baptism sermon. A third adult then says, "Coach has given me the honor to baptize you guys," and then goes on to baptize the students one by one, "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." After the ceremony is over, Slaughter again delivers some remarks, encouraging the students to make a decision every day to "walk towards Him."
FFRF offers its sympathies to the school at the untimely and tragic death of a recent graduate. However, it is inappropriate and unconstitutional for a public school to use the moment to organize a team baptism and for a coach to have participated in it.
"It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion," FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell writes to Catoosa County Public Schools Legal Counsel Renzo Wiggins. "It is also illegal for coaches to organize or participate in religious activities with students, including baptisms. Nor can coaches allow religious leaders to gain access to students during school-sponsored activities."
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the constitutional prohibition against school-sponsored religious exercise cannot be overcome by the claim that such activities are "voluntary," FFRF adds. And even if students or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes organized the baptism, it is inappropriate and unlawful for the coach to participate. While the event may have been ostensibly student-conceived, cues in the video clearly suggest to any reasonable student that this event is being run by the coach.
"This is not only unconstitutional, but also unhygienic," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Ceremonies of this type shouldn't be held at a public high school, no matter what the reason."
FFRF is asking Catoosa County Public Schools to investigate the event and ensure that there be no further illegal religious events during school-sponsored activities. It is also asking the school district to instruct the coaches and school staff that they cannot participate in school activities while acting in their official capacity.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with more than 23,000 nonreligious members across the country, including 400-plus in Georgia and an Atlanta-area chapter.