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Watchdog group protests baptisms of student athletes at Alabama high school

By
Pamela Manson

June 20 (UPI) -- In a video of Alabama student athletes being baptized on school property, the members of a football team appear to be enthusiastic participants in the religious ritual.

But the Freedom From Religion Foundation says the head coach helped organize the group baptism, making the situation coercive and the activity unconstitutional. The organization said the district should "take the appropriate steps to ensure there will be no further illegal religious events."

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"Our court system has established that our public schools cannot advance or promote religious activity," foundation lawyer Christopher Line told UPI.

Even if no one was technically forced to participate, student athletes are under tremendous pressure to please their coach, Line said. Because of that pressure, students are not going to opt out of an activity, he said.

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"They're not going to do anything to risk upsetting their coach," he said.

In a letter to Washington County Schools Superintendent John Dickey, Line says it is inappropriate for a public school district to proselytize students by organizing a baptism.

"As a school-sponsored event, football practice cannot include any endorsement of religion or religious rituals," Line writes in the May 29 letter. "It is also illegal for coaches to organize or participate in religious activities with students, including baptisms. Nor can coaches allow religious leaders to gain unique access to students during school-sponsored activities. When baptisms take place directly before or after a team football practice, on school property, with coaches' participation or leadership, any reasonable student would perceive these activities to be unequivocally endorsed by their school."

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Line also said promotion of religion by school staff "undeniably turns any non-believing and non-Christian WCS student into an outsider."

Dickey had not responded to the letter, Line said. The superintendent did not respond to an email from UPI requesting comment.

The letter says the foundation got a complaint from a community member about the baptisms, which took place on May 16. That afternoon, Bailey Thomas Hill, who is a leader at a local Baptist church, posted on Facebook that kids were being baptized soon and encouraged people to come to the football stadium at Washington County High School in Chatom for "an incredible afternoon."

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Hill, who posted the video of the baptisms on Facebook, declined to comment to UPI about the event.

The video begins with a man saying, "None of this would be going on without head coach Devin Roberts," and that "this is not going on all over the United States."

The man introduces two men -- neither of them Roberts - who will also perform the baptisms. Then the three baptize one girl and 16 boys as they step one by one into a large tub. The students' heads are dipped in the water and they are baptized "in the name of the father, son and holy spirit" as spectators clap.

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Roberts could not be reached for comment. In a Facebook post, he said, "So proud of all the kids and grateful to the people who made this happen! Most importantly, I'm humbled and in awe at witnessing the power of Christ move through myself and these young people."

The nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., describes itself as a watchdog defending the constitutional separation between religion and government and as a voice for atheism, agnosticism and skepticism.

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