Atheist Group Targets Public School for Allowing Student-Requested Baptisms

By Brittany M. Hughes | October 28, 2014 | 3:30pm EDT

(AP Photo)

( - In its most recent assault on religion in the public sphere, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist group, has issued a complaint against Russellville High School in Russellville, Ala., after the school’s head football coach allowed two students and an adult to be baptized on the team’s practice field one afternoon after football practice.

Mark Heaton, the football team’s head coach and the school’s athletic director, told the Franklin County Times that several students on the football team had asked to be baptized after one of the team’s captains, Austin Kitterman, had suffered life-threatening injuries in a four-wheeler accident only a few days before.

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

“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,” he added.

After Kitterman’s accident, Russellville High School students had held a prayer vigil in the school’s football stadium for their friend as he fought for his life, Heaton said.

Several days later, two kids on the football team asked to be baptized.

“This situation brought up a lot of questions for these kids who were searching for something to believe in and something to fill that void they were feeling,” Heaton told the Franklin County Times. “All that happened just a few days before these players asked to be baptized, so that was the context that all this was taking place in.”

The local newspaper reported that two students were baptized on Oct. 2. The third person baptized was Heaton’s 37-year-old brother, the report added.

After the baptisms, Heaton posted on his personal Twitter account: “Three baptized after practice Thursday. Building the Kingdom!!" Heaton also posted several photos of the two students being baptized while surrounded by their teammates.

Heaton told the newspaper that the baptisms, which were performed by a local youth minister, Tanner Hall, weren’t endorsed by the school.

“This wasn’t school-sanctioned,” Heaton explained in the report. “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.”

Heaton also told the newspaper that several students had left before the baptisms, and that no one was forced to participate.

After receiving a call from a “concerned local resident” about the baptisms, FFRF sent a letter of complaint to Franklin City Schools on Oct. 22, claiming that the baptisms were “constitutional violations” that directly contradicted the “constitutional principal of separation between state and church.”

In a news release posted on the group’s website, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel claimed that “[s]uch 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 group also called out Hall for being the football team’s chaplain, a position Seidel said is illegal since schools “may not advance or promote religion.”

"It is also inappropriate for a public school to offer religious leaders unique access to befriend and proselytize students,” Seidel stated in the news release. “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."

But Russellville City School Superintendent Rex Mayfield told the Franklin County Times that Hall isn’t the team’s chaplain and the school has never had a chaplain in any capacity.

“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 was quoted as saying.

As for the baptisms, Mayfield told the newspaper that they were “something that took place after school hours and after football practice was over with and wasn’t a pre-approved activity.”

Heaton said Hall is one of several youth ministers who volunteer for the team from time to time.

“They do things like paint the field for us and run video cameras for us at the games,” Heaton told the Franklin County Times. “They are around a lot, and the kids know them because of that and know that they are youth ministers at different churches in the community. They asked that Tanner baptize them, because they knew him. He wasn’t there to baptize anyone because he was the team’s chaplain.”

On top of accusing the school system of allowing illegal baptisms on school property, FFRF is also targeting Russellville teachers who have included faith-related messages on their personal bios linked to the school system’s website.

“FFRF's letter also addressed inappropriate religious content on teachers' personal Web pages accessed on the district's website,” the atheist group’s news release added.

“A ninth-grade math teacher's page says she sponsors the high school Christian Students United club and concludes with: ‘I am a member of Calvary Baptist Church, where I teach 5th grade Sunday School. My church and my faith are very important to me. I strive to live each day for Jesus and pray that His love is shown to my students through me.’”

One school employee’s statement that she wanted to “show students Jesus’s love” was “particularly troubling,” FFRF claimed.

The group advised that Franklin City Schools “should remove any and all religious messages on its employees’ public school websites,” stating that these messages “undoubtedly lead a reasonable observer to conclude that the District and its employees endorse religion, specifically Christianity.”

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