When faith and football collide: Mass baptism at Georgia high school

In Villa Rica, Ga., 18 students and a football coach were submerged in a tub of water before football practice, in a mass baptism by a local Baptist pastor. Is that legal? 

WSBTV - Atlanta/Screenshot
A Baptist pastor conducted a group baptism on a football field in Villa Rica, Ga., before practice on Aug. 17, 2015.

Does a mass baptism of high school football players – on a public high school football field – violate of the separation of church and state?

That's the question in Villa Rica, Ga., where video footage showed a crowd of spectators watching as 18 students and a football coach were submerged in a tub of water before football practice, in a mass baptism by the pastor of a local Baptist church.

The video, recorded by the pastor's son and which has since been removed from YouTube, was reportedly accompanied by the following message: "We had the privilege of baptizing a bunch of football players and a coach on the field of Villa Rica High School! We did this right before practice! Take a look and see how God is STILL in our schools!"

The incident, which occurred on Aug. 17, gained national prominence after the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation saw the video and sent a letter to the school stating it is "illegal for coaches to participate in religious activities with students."

The school has opened an investigation into the mass baptism, but has maintained that principal Glen Harding was not aware that students would be involved when he approved the visit from the Rev. Kevin Williams of the First Baptist Church of Villa Rica.

"The principal’s understanding was that the event was a church sponsored activity that was to be conducted after school, and he was not aware of student involvement," according to a statement from the school, reported the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "From the investigation, the school district has concluded that VRHS failed to follow district facility usages procedures for outside groups using school facilities."

The mass baptism at Villa Rica High School is just one in a series of incidents testing the boundaries between schools and religion at public high schools across the country.

In Bremerton, Wash., the local school district is investigating a football coach for praying after high school football games.

Last year, cheerleaders at an Oneida, Tenn., high school made headlines when they sidestepped a prayer ban by leading crowds at a Friday night football game in a recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

All three cases have sparked sharp reactions, with protesters denouncing the mixing of faith and football as passionately as supporters defend it.

Under the Constitution, government is prohibited from promoting religion, and public high schools are considered government entities.

But the confusion lies in a particular clause of the First Amendment called the Establishment Clause, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." The Establishment Clause is immediately followed by the freedom of religion or Free Exercise Clause: "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

In other words, the Constitution forbids government agents from establishing or promoting a single religion, but at the same time seeks to accommodate any number of religions, as the Christian Science Monitor's David Scott reported.

In 2003, the US Department of Education sought to clarify the matter when it released federal guidelines stating that "teachers and other public school officials may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities."

Despite the clarification, confusion persists over which expressions of faith are, and are not, allowed in schools, as countless incidents across the country indicate.

On one hand, "Public school students are largely free to exercise their faith on campus and on the field. A player’s personal prayer in the locker room or on the bench is protected by the First Amendment," explained Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, a nonpartisan organization that explores free-expression issues, in USA Today in 2012.

But then he continues:

The challenges to prayer arise when school employees and resources are involved. A high school football coach can’t lead his team in prayers.... The U.S. Supreme Court has concluded that public high school-organized prayers over the loudspeaker at a football game create an appearance of endorsement of religion, regardless of specific faith....

It’s an odd system when a reference to Jesus is considered religious and a reference to God is not. The safest course for all public schools is to simply call for a moment of silence before a game. Players, coaches and fans alike can then pray silently in the tradition of their own faiths or simply sit in reflection.

That will keep schools out of court, leave freedom of faith intact and ensure an even playing field for all religions.

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