Washington Co. Schools baptisms must stop, FFRF declares

Washington County Schools

Baptisms at an Alabama school district are all wet, the Freedom From Religion Foundation asserts. The practice is unconstitutional and must stop. 

A concerned Washington County Schools community member informed FFRF that on May 16 several football players and other students were baptized on school district property after school. A video posted on social media shows the students being baptized and the head football coach participating and endorsing this religious exercise. 

In the video, a man begins by noting: “None of this would be going on without head coach Devin Roberts.” The man then begins dunking students in a large plastic tub sitting on a trailer, while invoking “the father, the son and the holy spirit,” as others clap.

It is inappropriate for a public school district to organize a team baptism, FFRF stresses. It is equally inappropriate and unconstitutional for coaches to have participated.

Coaches may not organize or participate in religious activities, including baptisms, with students, FFRF writes. And coaches cannot allow religious leaders to gain unique access to students during school-sponsored activities. When baptisms take place directly before or after a team football practice, on school property, with coaches’ participation or leadership, any reasonable student would perceive these activities to be unequivocally endorsed by their school.

“It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion,” FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line writes to Superintendent John Dickey. “Courts have consistently held that it is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor, or lead religious activity at public high school athletic events, such as football practice. In Lee v. Weisman, the Supreme Court extended the prohibition of school-sponsored religious activities beyond the classroom to all school functions, holding prayers at public high school graduations an impermissible establishment of religion. As a school-sponsored event, football practice cannot include any endorsement of religion or religious rituals.”

Proscribing school employees from engaging in prayer and religious devotion with students does not violate employees’ right to free speech, according to the courts. The Constitution’s prohibition against school-sponsored religious exercise also cannot be overcome by claiming such activities are “voluntary.” It makes no difference if the coach required players to opt-in to the baptism.

The conduct at Washington City Schools is especially problematic in the context of athletics, given the pressure players feel to conform to coaches’ expectations, FFRF points out. Student athletes are inclined to mirror the actions of team leaders to garner their favor. Students should not be expected to pray to play, much less to be baptized at a school event. By leading and participating in such events, coaches send a clear message that the athletic staff approves of these activities.

FFRF is asking Washington County Schools officials to instruct coaches and staff that they can neither organize nor participate in religious activities with students while acting in their official capacity.

“The involvement of a public school coach in baptisms is so over the top as to be ludicrous,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “You’d be hard-pressed to cite a display of sectarian religiosity more blatant than this.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 31,000 members across the country, including hundreds in Alabama. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

FFRF is a member of the Secular Coalition for America

FFRF privacy statement