The Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger is reporting that a high school has received a complaint after a coach baptized a student.
In early September, Will Sammon reports, Newton High School senior and football player Garrick Alford told the school’s head football coach Ryan Smith that he wanted to be baptized. Alford also wanted the event to take place outside and in front of his teammates.
Coach Smith agreed, performing the Christian rite across the street from the high school and off of school grounds. During the baptism Smith said the following:
This world is going to give you a version of what a man is – tough, hard-nosed, doing things the way a man should do 'em, OK? Scripture provides a totally separate entity of what a man is. What a man is in scripture is being able to take care of a family, sacrificing for the sake of others, everything that we teach in this program, making sure that you put others before yourselves, making sure that you go without for the sake of your wife and kids and family.
Ryan then called Alford “a grown man” and “a very mature man,” and baptized him “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
On October 13, Sam Grover, an attorney for the atheist group Freedom From Religion, sent a letter of complaint to Dr. Virginia Young, the superintendent of the Newton Municipal School District. The letter said in part, “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."
The letter also cited several legal cases, including Santé Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe (2000), Lee v. Weisman (1992), and Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), in which courts ruled that school-sponsored events, including events taking place outside of the classroom and after normal school hours, are subject to the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court ruled in 2000 in Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe that school-organized prayer at football games was unconstitutional, even when the prayers were led by students.
Coach Smith told The Clarion-Ledger that he made it clear that players did not have to attend the baptism, and made sure the event was not done on school grounds. In a statement to The Clarion-Ledger, Superintendent Young supported Smith, arguing that the baptism was performed away from the school and was voluntary. “The baptism of a Newton Municipal School District student did not occur on school property and did not occur during school hours or during any organized school activity, thus the district feels this is a private matter of choice for that student,” Young said in the statement. “Any additional Newton Municipal School District students that attended the baptism did so as their own voluntary act and decision.”
FFR attorney Grover disagreed. “The coach organized this event, he promoted it to his team and all of that was done in his capacity as a coach,” Grover said. “He cannot be promoting his personal religious beliefs to student-players on that team. He only has access to these student players because of his position as a public school representative. He is abusing that privilege.”
The FFR letter concluded by asking for assurances that "the district take the appropriate steps to ensure there will be no further illegal religious events, including team baptisms, during school-sponsored activities."