- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A prominent atheist group has issued a complaint against an Alabama high school after its head football coach allowed two students and an adult to be baptized on the school’s football field.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has accused Russellville High School of violating “the constitutional principal of separation between state and church,” after the football team’s head coach, Mark Heaton, allowed teammates to be baptized after practice by a local youth minister, CNS News reported.

The baptisms were not endorsed by the school and only took place after practice was over, Mr. Heaton said. Players had requested the baptisms after one of the team’s captains, Austin Kitterman, suffered life-threatening injuries in an ATV accident, he said.

“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,” Mr. 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.”

Two students, as well as Mr. Heaton’s 37-year-old brother, were baptized on the school football field after practice, the paper said. Mr. Heaton said several students left before the baptisms took place and no one was forced to participate.

“This wasn’t school-sanctioned,” he told the Times. “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.”

After receiving a call last week from a “concerned local resident,” the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter of complaint to Franklin City Schools, calling the baptisms illegal.

“[I]t is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor or lead religious activity at public high school athletic events,” writes FFRF staff attorney Andrew Seidel. “It is also inappropriate for a public school to offer religious leaders unique access to befriend and proselytize students.

“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 group said.

FFRF also took issue with some Russellville teachers’ personal bios that carry religious messages on the school system’s website.

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

FFRF demanded that Franklin City Schools “remove any and all religious messages on its employees’ public school websites, because they undoubtedly lead a reasonable observer to conclude that the District and its employees endorse religion, specifically Christianity.”

Russellville City School Superintendent Rex Mayfield said the school system has addressed all the concerns and concluded that no violations took place, arguing that the baptisms were “something that took place after school hours and after football practice was over with and wasn’t a pre-approved activity,” CNS News reported.

State Sen. Roger Bedford has taken a stand against FFRF in supporting the school.

“I fully support anyone who wants to publicly show their commitment to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” he said, the Times reported. “These young men made a commitment to change their lives and wanted to celebrate that decision with their teammates and coaches.

“These attacks coming from organizations such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation are an attack on our rights to publicly display our religious beliefs, a freedom we all enjoy as Americans,” Mr. Bedford said. “As a Christian, I am offended by these attacks on my constituents. To my understanding, the school played no part in the organization of the event and broke no laws in the process.”

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