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

Source: The Washington Post

By Julie Zauzmer

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.

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.

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