- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2015

An apparent mass baptism that unfolded on the football field of a public high school in Georgia is now under investigation, the local school district says.

Carroll County Schools said Tuesday that it’s determining if any state or federal laws were violated when more than a dozen athletes on the Villa Rica High School football team were reportedly baptized on camera before a recent practice.

Video footage of the baptism was initially put on YouTube accompanied by a caption that indicated “a bunch of football players and a coach” had been baptized.

“Take a look and see how God is STILL in our schools!” the caption stated.

The clip has since been pulled down, but not before catching the attention of the the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that promotes the separation of church and state. A representative for the group wrote the Carroll County Schools superintendent on Tuesday and asked the district to “immediately investigate and take action to ensure there will be no further illegal religious events.”

Elizabeth Cavell, a staff attorney with the organization, said federal courts have routinely agreed it’s illegal for coaches to participate in religious activities with students, be it baptisms or a brief prayer.

“When baptisms and prayer take place directly before a team football practice, on school property, with coaches’ participation, any reasonable student would perceive these activities to be unequivocally endorsed by their school,” she wrote.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, a co-founder of FFRF, told local news network WXIA that she “can’t remember another case like this.”

“It’s forcing them to undergo a religious ritual to be accepted on a team. How are they going to cross their coach? They have no choice. It’s proselytizing, it’s coercive, and it’s not legal in our schools,” she said. “It’s really misusing the authority of the coach to promote his personal religious agenda.”

Carroll County responded to the foundation’s complaint on Tuesday and acknowledged that the school district is “currently looking into the specifics of this situation and will take appropriate steps to ensure all state and federal laws are followed.”

Although the original video has been removed, a Facebook page associated with the Villa Rica Wildcats on Tuesday posted a statement addressed to athletes, parents, coaches and staff that defended the team’s relationship with religion.

“We sometimes have to wear our football ARMOUR off the field. We have to wear a breastplate of righteousness, helmets of salvation, and we must wear our cleats for the preparation of the gospel of peace. Our uniforms are our ARMOUR both on and off the field,” read a post on the Villa Rica Touchdown Club page.

Villa Rica is a city of about 14,000 people and is situated roughly 30 mile west of Atlanta, Georgia.

• Andrew Blake can be reached at ablake@washingtontimes.com.

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