School still life with copyspace on chalkboardWritten by Don Byrd

Just over a year ago, school officials in Georgia’s Carroll County were disavowing a mass baptism that took place on a public high school’s football field involving coaches and players. The use of school resources, and school employees that were authority figures to organize and conduct a religious event of that magnitude, the superintendent insisted, was a violation of school district procedures and policies.

Now, a similar controversy seems to have erupted, again in Georgia. Chattanooga’s WTVC reports that Heritage High School’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the football team held a memorial event following a classmate’s tragic death. Coach E.K. Slaughter invited a minister to perform the baptisms. Slaughter defended event as voluntary, saying “it was after football practice was dismissed and other players went home.” 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, however, argues the baptism was plainly unlawful.

FFRF offers its sympathies to the school at the untimely and tragic death of a recent graduate. However, it is inappropriate and unconstitutional for a public school to use the moment to organize a team baptism and for a coach to have participated in it.

“It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell writes to Catoosa County Public Schools Legal Counsel Renzo Wiggins. “It is also illegal for coaches to organize or participate in religious activities with students, including baptisms. Nor can coaches allow religious leaders to gain access to students during school-sponsored activities.”

While students may have largely organized the event, FFRF goes on to say, video clearly shows “this event is being run by the coach.”

For more perspective on religion in public schools, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s resource page.