The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Baptisms on the football field: Church-and-state separation advocates see a troubling trend at public schools

Suitland High School football players, shown here in 2013, pray before and after each game at their Maryland high school. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

One sunny afternoon last month, Newton High School football coach Ryan Smith gave his players a different sort of pep talk.

“This world’s gonna give you a version of what a man is,” Smith told the players. “Scripture provides a totally separate entity of what a man is.”

Pointing to one of the teens, Smith said of the boy, “He made a decision that a man’s supposed to make. He accepted Christ as his savior.”

And then the Mississippi coach dunked the teenage football player in a brimming plastic tub of water, to baptize him in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.

To onlookers and to thousands who watched a video of the baptism later, it was a beautiful expression of faith in the context of football. Commenters wrote on Facebook, “I have tears running down my face watching this. God is so good!” “Keep winning for Christ, Coach Smith!” “Praise God for a Christian role model like Ryan!!”

To others, the baptism was an inappropriate action that a public school employee never should have taken. And the Freedom From Religion Foundation is considering suing the Newton Municipal School District for what the organization views as a violation of the separation of church and state.

Why you shouldn’t defend a high school football coach praying on the field

Federal courts have ruled that while students can pray at school, coaches, like other employees of public schools, cannot participate in religious activities with their players. “When a school’s football coach organizes and leads a baptism with his players, students on the team will perceive the religious ritual to be unequivocally endorsed by their school. This appearance of school sponsorship of a religious message violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” Freedom From Religion Foundation attorney Sam Grover wrote to the Mississippi school district.

Grover told The Post that he has sent at least a dozen similar letters to other schools in the southern states he covers as an attorney, including Texas, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Baptisms by football coaches, Grover said, seem to be something of a trend.

“The first one that gets a little bit of attention, it’s a feel-good story, and other coaches emulate it. That’s just my guess,” Grover said. He has only heard of football coaches baptizing students — not, say, English teachers. “Church and football are two pretty big institutions in the South. I think for that reason, they often go hand in hand.”

Why Christian football fans should search their consciences

Two schools in Georgia came under fire for baptisms on the football field. At Villa Rica High School, 18 students were baptized last year; a church that conducted the ritual and posted a video of it online wrote in the caption, “We did this right before practice! Take a look and see how God is STILL in our schools!” Last month, another Georgia high school football team reportedly hosted a mass baptism to honor a recent graduate who died in a car accident.

In the dozen-plus cases like this that he has handled, Grover said most schools have read his letter and then confirmed that they would speak to the coach about not baptizing players again.

The Newton school district, however, is sticking by Coach Smith’s actions. In a statement, the school said that the baptism happened off school property — outside a dentist’s office, about a block away from the school, Superintendent Virginia Young told The Post. “The District feels this is a private matter of choice for that student. Any additional Newton Municipal School District students that attended the baptism did so as their own voluntary act,” the school’s statement said.

Young said she doesn’t see a problem with a baptism of a student conducted by a school employee, as long as it takes place outside of school hours and off school property, and students aren’t compelled to attend.

That’s not enough, Grover said: “Those factors do not convert this into a completely private event. The only reason this coach has access to these players on the football team is because he’s the football coach.”

If the district sticks to that position, the Freedom From Religion Foundation will consider bringing a lawsuit, Grover said. “Any student on the team who feels they’re being pressured to participate in a religious ritual could hold the public school district accountable,” he said. “Courts have consistently said, being able to opt out of a constitutional violation does not mean it’s not a constitutional violation.”

Smith, who conducted the baptism, and his wife Kristi, who posted the video online, both spoke to The Post briefly on Friday but were not immediately available to discuss the baptism. The video has been shared on Facebook nearly 2,000 times and viewed more than 109,000 times.

Want more stories about faith? Follow Acts of Faith on Twitter or sign up for our newsletter.

What it’s like to experience the 2016 election as both a conservative and a sexual abuse survivor

The Trump effect? A stunning number of evangelicals will now accept politicians’ immoral acts

In one year, people have read anti-Semitic tweets a staggering 10 billion times, report says