FFRF to Ga. school district: Public school football baptisms are unconstitutional

Screenshot of a social media post of high school football players getting baptized in a bucket on the field

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is calling out the Tattnall County High School football coach for abusing his position to baptize players.

A concerned district community member informed the state/church watchdog that Tattnall County High School football coach Isaac Ferrell has been using his position to push his personal religious beliefs onto players. On Oct. 24, Ferrell reportedly invited a local pastor to attend football practice during which he was allowed to proselytize students and baptize them on school grounds. The incident was posted on a Facebook page titled “Tattnall County Football” with the caption, “Yesterday after practice Coach Ferrell gave the guys the opportunity to be baptized by Pastor Few. 20 young men made the decision to go #ALLIN with Christ!! Show them some support. #BiggerThanFootball.”

“The district must refrain from infusing its football program with religion, and coach Ferrell cannot be allowed to preach to student athletes or allow a local pastor to preach to and baptize students,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line has written to Tattnall County School District Superintendent Kristen Waters.

Student athletes have the First Amendment right to be free from religious indoctrination when participating in their public school’s athletics program. It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to invite or instruct others, such as pastors, to lead their team in prayer or other religious activities, including proselytizing and baptisms.

Student athletes are especially susceptible to coercion, since they know that their coaches control their playing time and positions — directly affecting students’ opportunities for college scholarships and recruitment. When coaches invite a pastor to repeatedly preach to student athletes and try to convince those students to be baptized, the students will no doubt feel that participating in these religious activities is essential to pleasing their coaches and being viewed as a team player. It is unrealistic and unconstitutional to put before student athletes the false choice of allowing their constitutional rights to be violated in order to maintain good standing in the eyes of their coaches and peers or openly dissenting at the risk of retaliation and ostracization from coaches and teammates.

FFRF is requesting that the Tattnall County School District investigate the matter and take immediate action to protect its students. The team’s coaches must be directed to cease allowing a pastor to proselytize and baptize student athletes. District coaches must be reminded that they must not push their personal religious beliefs onto students while acting in their official capacity, nor enlist an outside adult to do the same.

“Football players shouldn’t be forced to get baptized to play football,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Student athletes will feel coerced to oblige with their coach’s wishes.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 600 members and a local chapter in Georgia. Our 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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