The Freedom From Religion Foundation is raising objections to a Mississippi public school football coach's baptism of a student-athlete.
On Sept. 21, Newton High football Coach Ryan Smith organized and performed a baptism, using a big utility tub, of one of his football players. The entire team was present. Prior to performing the ritual, Smith made religious remarks to the team about how "God" was calling out to him, what the scripture says about being a man, and proclaimed that accepting Jesus Christ as one's savior is "a decision that a man is supposed to make."
"It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Newton Municipal School District Superintendent Virginia You. "It is illegal for coaches to organize or participate in religious activities with students, including baptisms. Federal courts have specifically held public school coaches' participation in religious activities with their players unconstitutional."
FFRF asserted that Coach Smith's actions go well beyond the behavior held illegal by federal courts—including the 5th Circuit, the controlling court of appeals in Mississippi—since he organized a religious ritual and sermonized his players. His actions are especially problematic, since players in such a setting feel the need to conform to their coaches' expectations so as not to hurt their standing on the team.
By his actions, Smith sends the message that the coaching staff, and, by extension, the school district value Christian players above those who practice a minority religion or no religion at all. Newton and its schools are home to a diverse array of families, including parents and students who are non-Christian and nonreligious. The district has an obligation to make its activities welcoming and nondiscriminatory for all, not just its Christian majority.
FFRF requested that the Newton Municipal School District take appropriate steps to ensure that there are no further illegal events, such as baptisms, during school-sponsored events. It also asked that coaches and school staff be instructed that they can't organize or participate in religious activities with students while acting in their official capacity.
"Talk about 'pray to play,'" said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. "Coaches who can't control their proselytizing impulses should not be employed by public schools."
Since receiving FFRF's letter, the school district's superintendent released an initial statement that highlights what it considers to be mitigating factors that justify Coach Smith's actions. But Grover says that those factors do not resolve the constitutional issue. Since the statement was released, Newton's attorney has been in communication with Grover and has resolved to discuss the state of the law with Superintendent You. "We are hopeful that the school district will decide on a course of action soon," Grover notes.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nontheist organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with more than 23,000 members all over the country, including in Mississippi.