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FFRF to Florida school district: Keep baptisms, religion out of football program

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is telling Charlotte County Public Schools to immediately end coach-led religious activities, including Christian baptisms, from a high school football program.

A concerned community member has informed the national state/church watchdog that the Port Charlotte High School football team has become deeply entangled with religion, thanks to a team Christian chaplain named Tom Parker, who regularly engages players in religious exercises and prayers. Most shocking, this has included a baptism ceremony for players in Boca Grande. The lead pastor at New Day Christian Church, Rusty Russell, is an assistant coach for the team who has also been using his position to promote religion within the football program.

Russell regularly boasts about baptizing players on his Facebook page. On July 24, Russell shared a post from New Day Christian Church that brags about baptizing 13 players. On July 27, Russell posted:

Yesterday we were privileged to baptize 9 more football players and one more coach who couldn’t make it Sunday! God has brought beauty out of the ashes.

“Charlotte County Public Schools must ensure that this school-sponsored religious coercion ends immediately,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes. “The team’s coaches must immediately cease infusing the football program with religion.”

It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer or instruct others to lead their team in prayer or religious activities, FFRF reminds the school district. The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools. It is additionally unconstitutional for public school employees to direct students to partake in religious activities or even participate in the religious activities of their students. At Port Charlotte High School, however, the team coaches have permeated the football program with religion, allowing Parker to preach to the team and engage in religious worship and activities with the students.

The religious coercion occurring within the district’s football program is particularly troubling for those parents and students who are not Christians or do not subscribe to any religion. It sends a discriminatory message to the 37 percent of Americans who are non-Christian, including almost 30 percent who are nonreligious. Additionally, a recent survey reveals that almost half of Gen Z qualify as religiously unaffiliated “nones.”

FFRF is asking the district to investigate the matter and take immediate action to protect its students. The team’s coaches must be directed to cease including coercive religious activities and practices in the football program. Further, FFRF requests that all district coaches be reminded that they may not push their personal religious beliefs onto students while acting in their official capacity, nor enlist an outside adult to do the same.

“No student athletes should be expected to pray to play, much less be subjected to full-body baptisms,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Student athletes look to their coaches for leadership, and these two are abusing their trust.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 2,000 members and the Central Florida Freethought Community chapter in Florida. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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