Alabama High School Football Team Performs Baptisms on the Field After Practice October 24, 2014

Alabama High School Football Team Performs Baptisms on the Field After Practice

I’ll never understand why some Christians, clearly breaking the law, choose to do so publicly. When you break the rules, you shouldn’t be bragging about it on social media or the Internet.

Yet that’s what the Freedom From Religion Foundation claims is happening in the Russellville City Schools (in Alabama).

Like the football team’s (alleged) chaplain Tanner Hall who baptized players after practice earlier this month, a ritual that was documented on Twitter (by the school’s athletic director) and Facebook:

And like the teachers whose school-approved websites feature plenty of religious references.

I will say that the teachers’ websites don’t bother me very much. They’re not proselytizing so much as telling people what inspires them. (Saying that you “pray that [Jesus’] love is shown to my students through me” doesn’t suggest to me there’s anything illegal happening in the classroom.) More troubling is one teacher’s promotion of the Christian club she sponsors, but even that seems pretty mild.

The baptisms, on the other hand, are a huge problem:

First, it is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor, or lead religious activity at public high school athletic events. It is also inappropriate for a public school to offer religious leaders unique access to befriend and proselytize students. Accordingly, public high school football teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team, or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain, because public schools may not advance or promote religion.

Such sponsorship of religion is especially problematic in the context of athletics given the pressure players feel to conform to what coaches expect of them so as not to affect their playing time or lose favor with the coaches.

The school’s athletic director Mark Heaton attempted to explain why the baptisms were perfectly fine:

Heaton confirmed there were three baptisms after practice on Oct. 2, two of them being players and one of which was Heaton’s 37-year-old brother.

“This was something that the students came to me and told me they wanted to do,” Heaton said.

“Neither of these kids had a home church, and they had accepted Christ and wanted to be baptized in front of their teammates who also shared their faith and wanted to be there to support them.

This wasn’t school-sanctioned. This was something these students wanted to do, and I believe it was important to let them do this because these kids are going through a very important part of their lives. They are searching for something to believe in, and as adults we are put here to guide these children. When these kids came to me with this request to be baptized with their teammates, I felt like it was important to support them.

“We are going to be here for our kids regardless of the decisions they make, good or bad, but there are so many bad decisions made today by young people that it’s important to support the good decisions they make.

Heaton says the event wasn’t school-sanctioned, but it took place on the field, right after practice, and the players were all in their uniforms. Heaton even tweeted the pictures. Given his additional comments about how this was a “good decision,” it’s completely reasonable to think this school promotes Christianity.

The district superintendent says Tanner Hall isn’t even the “team chaplain”… which, to me, is even more disturbing than if he was, since that just makes him a random adult (who probably hasn’t had a district-required background check) joining the team after practice:

Russellville City School Superintendent Rex Mayfield said on Thursday that the team doesn’t have a chaplain and that the school has never authorized an official position for a chaplain for the team.

“There may have been people who referred to Tanner Hall as the team’s chaplain, but that isn’t an official position, paid or volunteer, and never has been,” Mayfield said.

This isn’t the worst case I’ve ever seen of religion-promotion in public schools, but the district is showing a serious lack of oversight on the issue. Administrators are letting teachers write whatever they want on their websites and allowing random strangers to baptize players after football practice while the team watches. I suspect there won’t be a lawsuit, but it’ll be interesting to see how the district responds to the allegations.

(Thanks to Brian for the link)


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