High school faces criticism after football team hosts 'illegal' baptism for players

The Washington County High School Football team poses after their team baptism in Chatom, Ala. (Credit: Washington County High School Football team/Facebook)
The Washington County High School Football team poses after their team baptism in Chatom, Ala. (Credit: Washington County High School Football team/Facebook)

Although an Alabama high school coach was praised for caring about the “hearts” of his football players in organizing a team baptism, a religious watchdog group claims the act was a violation of students’ civil rights. Now, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is demanding the school district stop “further illegal religious events.”

“It is inappropriate for a public school district to proselytize students by organizing a team baptism,” reads a letter from FFRF, addressed to the Washington County Schools Superintendent John Dickey. “It is equally inappropriate and unconstitutional for coaches to have participated, even if students or the [Fellowship of Christian Athletes] organized the baptism.”

In a Facebook video posted by a local Baptist church leader, members of the Washington High School County football team were baptized on what appears to be the school’s football field in Chatom, Ala.

An unidentified pastor begins the religious ceremony, held on May 16, by praising the team’s head coach, Devin Roberts, for organizing the event for his players.

“None of this would be going on without head coach Devin Roberts,” the pastor says in the video.

“Now, Devin Roberts is not normal— this is not going on all over the United States. I’ve see it in a few places and it’s pretty neat but Coach Devon Roberts is not only the kind of guy that loves his players for how well they do in the weight room and on the field... but he’s also concerned about their hearts.”

In the ceremony, the student-athletes line up to step into a large gray tub filled with water. After each student agrees to “accept Jesus,” the pastor dips their head into the water as the crowd claps and cheers.

“This is the profession of your faith, now I baptize you in the name of the father, son and holy spirit,” the pastor said to each of the kids baptized.

Coach Devin Roberts has not yet responded to Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for comment. It is not clear whether the whole team participated.

While many who commented on the Facebook video praised the coach— and the Lord— for holding the baptism, at least one Washington County community member was unhappy with the religious ritual and made a complaint to the FRFF.

“It’s hard to imagine a more blatant violation of the Establishment Clause then public school students being baptized on school property as part of a school-sponsored event organized by school personnel,” FRFF legal fellow Christopher Line tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Line sent a letter addressed to Washington County Schools Superintendent John Dickey on May 29 explaining why the football team’s baptism is illegal and how it is in violation of the First Amendment.

“Courts have consistently held that it is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor, or lead religious activity at public high school athletic events, such as football practice,” Line wrote.

“When baptisms take place directly before or after a team football practice, on school property, with coaches' participation or leadership, any reasonable student would perceive these activities to be unequivocally endorsed by their school,” the letter says.

Line also added that the football player’s baptism was “especially problematic in the context of athletics, given the pressure players feel to conform to coaches’ expectations, so as not to disappoint coaches or hurt their standing on the team.”

FRFF ended the letter by requesting Washington County Schools conduct an investigation and ensure that “no further religious activities, including team baptisms.”

Washington County Schools has not replied to Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for comment.

While the FRFF is unsure whether or not it will take legal action at this time, Line says that any Washington County High School student and his or her family has grounds to pursue litigation.

“Any student and their family could potentially take legal action over the District’s violation of their constitutional rights,” Line tells Yahoo.

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