A Georgia public school is looking into a mass baptism on its football field that was posted on YouTube but later taken down. In a state where football is practically another religion, the video raises questions about the role of faith in public schools.
The video was posted by First Baptist Villa Rica, according to local news channel WXIA-TV, shot before football practice at Villa Rica High School showing 18 players getting baptized.
“We had the privilege of baptizing a bunch of football players and a coach on the field of Villa Rica High School! We did this right before practice! Take a look and see how God is STILL in our schools!” the caption with the video said. The video had been taken down by Tuesday evening.
The school is looking into what happened, Villa Rica’s Assistant Superintendent of Administrative and Support Services Terry Jones said in a statement.
“The Carroll County School System was made aware of a situation that took place at Villa Rica High School prior to football practice on August 17th,” the statement said. “The District is currently looking into the specifics of this situation and will take appropriate steps to ensure all state and federal laws are followed.”
Calls to the church and the Georgia Department of Education were not immediately returned on Wednesday.
WXIA-TV reports that the Villa Rica Touchdown Club, which posts information about the school’s football team, posted the video to its Facebook page with the caption, “Share this with everyone! This should go viral!” The post has since been removed.
Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation said that she could count the number of baptisms at a high school that she is aware of on one hand. She said Clemson University in South Carolina also hosted a baptism on a football field within the last three years. Gaylor said it’s almost impossible to get a football player or athlete to come forward to discuss the baptism, so nothing legally happened at Clemson.
“When you have a captive audience of students at a high school, it’s particularly egregious,” Gaylor said. “The message is clearly, ‘You have to pray to play.’”
She noted the plastic tub that was used in the baptism.
“It’s not only unconstitutional, it’s unhygienic,” Gaylor said while laughing. “More seriously, it’s a misuse of authority to proselytize students under your control.”
Heather Weaver, an attorney for the ACLU, said that if the video and reports are correct, use of public school property and the school coach’s involvement would be unconstitutional. She said the ACLU often receives reports of public schools promoting religion, “but this is one of the most egregious examples I have seen.”
“It’s especially coercive here because it’s a football coach, you have a team environment and compliance and conformity are presumably expected in that environment,” Weaver said.
Weaver said that some football coaches have encouraged their team to attend a church service or a church dinner on a Friday night before a game, which would also violate the First Amendment because a public school official cannot use his or her position to engage in religious exercise.
Charles Haynes, vice president of the Newseum Institute’s Religious Freedom Center, said the activity was problematic because football practice is a school-sponsored activity, not a community event, even though it takes place after school.
“The players are a captive audience,” he said. “School officials may not allow outside adults to have access to students for religious activities in these circumstances.”
If the church had rented the space or was allowed to use the space on the same basis as other community groups in non-school hours, then the church could have had a worship service or baptism on the field and students could participate, Haynes said.
A North Carolina high school football coach in 2014 was ordered to stop baptizing players and leading them in prayer, according to the Charlotte Observer.
Mooresville High School Superintendent Mark Edwards told the Observer he met with coach Hal Capps after the football season and ordered him not to lead students in prayers and baptisms. Edwards said he told Capps a teacher or coach who leads students in prayer violates the constitutional separation of church and state. Edwards said a baptism occurred at a citizen center in downtown Mooresville.
The role of religion in public life is hotly debated in public education. Public displays of faith and school-sponsored activity have been hotly debated since the Supreme Court issued in 1963 a ruling striking down school-sponsored prayer.
In the past, Americans have tended to favor looser limits on religion in public schools. According to an August 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center, more than two-thirds of Americans agreed with the statement that “liberals have gone too far in trying to keep religion out of the schools and the government.”