School district defends football practice baptisms after atheist group complains

Football field
Football field | Unsplash/Andrew McElroy

Robertson County School District in Middle Tennessee is not backing down after receiving a legal complaint from a secular organization in response to one of its schools allowing a pastor to perform student baptisms after a football practice.

Following the legal complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation over the baptism of two students on Aug. 7, Robertson County Director of Schools, Chris Causey, confirmed this week that baptisms had taken place after practice at Springfield High School.  

The Wisconsin-based organization said in its Sept. 5 command letter that it was a violation of the First Amendment for the two players to have been baptized by Yellowjackets character coach Chad Diehl, who works as a local  Baptist pastor. 

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Additionally, the group took issue with the fact that coaches promoted photos of the baptisms on their social media pages. 

FFRF was alerted to the baptisms by a concerned local resident, the complaint alleges. FFRF urged the school district to put an end to “prayers, religious rituals and a ‘character coach,’” things the legal group argues constitute and endorsement of religion. 

Attached to the FFRF complaint are screenshots of pictures that were posted to social media by coaches showing the two players getting baptized in a tub and their teammates huddling around.

The letter argues that it is “illegal for coaches to “organize or participate in religious activities with students, including baptisms” because it sends a message to students that such activities are endorsed by the school. FFRF also called for Diehl to be fired as a “character coach.” 

Causey, however, did not agree with FFRF’s assessment, saying in a statement that the coaches were found not to have violated any policies or laws after an administrative review, according to The Tennessean

"The activities that occurred on or about Aug. 7, were student-initiated, student-led, and occurred after the practice session had ended, and after school hours,” the statement reads. “All participation was voluntary with no requirement for attendance either stated or implied.”

In its initial letter, FFRF attorney Chris Line objected that the First Amendment’s prohibition against school-sponsored religious exercise “cannot be overcome by claiming such activities are voluntary.”  

Line cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1962 decision in Engel v. Vitale, which ruled it unconstitutional for public schools to compose a school prayer and encourage the prayer to be recited in class. 

“It makes no difference if the coach required players to opt-in to the baptism,” the letter reads. 

On Twitter, coach Jake Buttram commented about the baptisms, saying in a post that they were “better than winning any game or any trophy.” Meanwhile, head coach Dustin Wilson retweeted posts shared on social media about the baptisms. 

Causey contended that both of the coaches’ social media accounts are their personal accounts and not official school accounts. 

Prior to the FFRF complaint, Causey said the school district hadn’t received any complaints about the baptisms. 

“If we have concerned parents or community members, I would think they would need to contact the district office about it instead of turning to organizations that aren’t even based in Tennessee,” he contended. 

According to KGUN9, the school district received a few complaints after the FFRF letter was made public. 

Line told The Tennessean that FFRF is still waiting for a formal response from the school district. Line added that if the district does not respond to the complaint, there could be legal repercussions. However, Line said that they could only take action if there is a parent interested in pursuing legal action. 

“These are serious allegations of constitutional misconduct,” Line said. “I would expect them to consult an attorney, and sometimes, that takes time, as we would expect. … We hope for a quick response with what the district will do to correct the issues.”

FFRF advocates for a strict adherence to the separation of church and state. The organization often pressures local governments and school districts to halt any kind of perceived entanglement with religion. 

The legal organization has frequently gone after public high school and college athletic programs over team prayers, baptisms or prayer over the loudspeakers before games. 

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

or Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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