School still life with copyspace on chalkboardWritten by Don Byrd

Another public high school football coach, this time in Mississippi, has baptized one of his players on video. Like earlier high-profile incidents in Georgia (see posts here and here), this one, involving a coach and player from Newton High School, created an online sensation. Because school officials are supporting the actions of the coach in this case, there may be a church-state lawsuit on the way.

Maybe most disturbingly, as the Washington Post’s Julie Zauzmer writes, this practice may have become “something of a trend.”

“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. . . . .

“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.

It is hard not to celebrate the baptism of a young person into the body of Christ. But that is all the more reason why a public school teacher should take care not to give the impression that the school officially endorses, prefers, or represents a particular religious viewpoint.

Being celebrated, going viral online, lend excitement to the act. But aligning such a personal, religious decision with a community school, and particularly with someone in a position of civic authority like a football coach, runs the risk of becoming coercive and undermines the act of soul liberty at the heart of the baptism decision. On top of that, it risks alienating and excluding team members of other faiths or of no faith who should be treated always as full and equal participants.

If this is indeed becoming a trend, it should be met with a determined counter-trend from school officials and religious leaders alike to educate coaches about their responsibility to all team members, regardless of their religious views, and their responsibility to the public they both serve and represent.