Public school football baptisms are severe violations of public school neutrality toward religion, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is informing an Oklahoma school district.
A number of student football players were baptized on Broken Arrow High School property last month. Brian Preston, student director at Battle Creek Church, posted a smoking-gun video to Facebook documenting several baptisms that occurred on Sept. 5 after a Broken Arrow High School football practice. Preston confirms in the video that the baptisms took place “after football practice, right here at Broken Arrow High School.” He explains that 10 football team members “gave their life to Christ” and “those same students step[ped] forward in baptism in front of all their peers” after practice. Included in the video is a coach’s dunking in the baptismal tub, induced to “step foot into the baptism waters” after “he saw the faith in his players.” Preston rejoiced in witnessing “the team coming around each other taking a bold stand for Christ” and in God “drawing students to the baptism water.”
Public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion because the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits governmental entities from endorsing religion, FFRF emphasizes to Broken Arrow Public Schools.
“Courts have consistently held that public schools cannot organize, sponsor or lead religious activity at public high school athletic events, such as football practice,” FFRF Legal Fellow Karen Heineman writes to Superintendent Janet Vinson. “When religious events take place directly after a team football practice, on school property, with coaches’ participation, these activities are perceived by reasonable students to be endorsed by their school.”
FFRF adds that federal courts have specifically held public school coaches’ participation in their team’s religious activity unconstitutional. Organization of and/or participation in a team baptism are clearly prohibited. The court in one case rejected a coach’s argument that the school district’s policy of prohibiting its employees from engaging in prayer with students violated the employees’ right to free speech. Neither can the Constitution’s prohibition against school-sponsored religious exercise be overcome by claiming such activities are “voluntary.”
When public high school football players are encouraged or compelled to engage in religious activity with their team, the school has violated the Constitution and the trust of the players and their parents, FFRF underscores. The team was effectively a captive audience for the evangelists from Battle Creek Church when Broken Arrow High School provided the platform of a football practice. The fact that a coach was then inspired to be baptized is probably the best example of the peer pressure induced by this religious spectacle sponsored by a public school on school property.
FFRF observes that fostering a religious viewpoint in a public high school sends an impermissible message to students that a certain religious belief is favored, especially in this day and age. Sponsoring a Christian baptism alienates non-Christian students, families, teachers, and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted, including the more than 43 percent of young Americans — those born after 1990, which is the student body — who are not religious.
FFRF is requesting that the school district investigate the complaint and take action to ensure there will be no more religious events during school-sponsored activities, including educating coaches and school staff regarding their constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion while acting in their official capacities.
“This egregious violation shows that this public school is all wet when it comes to enforcing constitutional rights,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Sports programs are for sports, not proselytizing.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 35,000 members across the country, including more than 150 members in Oklahoma. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.