Atheists go after football coach for what they call 'pray to play' baptism

by Gregory Tomlin |

(Facebook/Video Still)Coach Ryan Smith baptizes football player Garrick Alford on private-property, after-hours and after his work was finished.

NEWTON, Mississippi (Christian Examiner) – A Wisconsin-based atheist group has filed a complaint with a Mississippi school district over the public baptism of a football player by his coach.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation sent the complaint to Newton, Mississippi, School District Superintendent Virginia Young Oct. 13 calling the coach to account for what it said is promoting religion in front of the team.

According to the Clarion Ledger, Newton High School Coach Ryan Smith baptized senior Garrick Alford before dozens of members of the football team in September after Alford approached the coach, who is a Christian, and told him he wanted to be saved.

Smith reportedly counseled Alford for several weeks before holding the baptism, but it is primarily what Smith said at the baptism that has the atheist group fired up. He told the players God was encouraging him to reach the players with the message of the Gospel. He said accepting Christ is "a decision a man is supposed to make."

We appreciate that Coach Smith wants his players to grow as young men in addition to progressing as athletes. But Smith can instill all the secular values he mentioned in his sermon – values like personal responsibility, family, leadership, and teamwork – without promoting his personal religious beliefs. Indeed, if he wants to continue having access to students as a representative of the school district, he must keep his personal religious beliefs to himself.
- Attorney Sam Grover, FFRF

The Sept. 21 baptism was captured on video and posted to Facebook. It had been viewed more than 243,00 times by Oct. 28, and shared 2,416 times. 

FFRF's Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote in the letter to the district that laws prohibiting coaches from offering religious instruction to players or organizing religious activities in school are "well settled." He said the baptism was "illegal."

"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. The appearance of school sponsorship of a religious message violates the Establishment of the First Amendment," Grover wrote.

According to the atheist group, the baptism gives the impression the coach and coaching staff "value Christian players above players who practice a minority religion and no religion at all."

"We appreciate that Coach Smith wants his players to grow as young men in addition to progressing as athletes. But Smith can instill all the secular values he mentioned in his sermon – values like personal responsibility, family, leadership, and teamwork – without promoting his personal religious beliefs. Indeed, if he wants to continue having access to students as a representative of the school district, he must keep his personal religious beliefs to himself."

FFRF's Co-President Dan Barker said the coach was practicing "pray to play."

"Coaches who can't control their proselytizing impulses should not be employed by public schools," said Barker, whose organization hinted that educating the coach on the law may not help the school avoid legal trouble.

The school district's attorney, Robert Logan, told FFRF Oct. 26 that the issue had been addressed and that Young had met with Coach Smith.

"The district does not expect that its faculty or staff will promote their personal religious beliefs to students in the future," FFRF said in an update to their news release about the issue.

But the controversy may not be over, primarily because FFRF misrepresented the facts of the case, according to Mike Hurst, director of the Mississippi Justice Institute (MJI).

The Newton Municipal School District has nothing to do with Coach Smith's private religious beliefs or activities. This lawsuit threatens action against this school unless it actively intervenes in the religious practice of its employees. The FFRF's demand rejects religious tolerance, rejects religious accommodation and seeks to create a system where the government can dictate to its employees how, where and with whom that privately practice their religion.
- Mike Hurst, Mississippi Justice Institute

On Oct. 27, Hurst issued a statement offering support for the district and its employees while they are facing a threat from an "out-of-state group made up of atheists, agnostics and skeptics."

"The Newton Municipal School District has nothing to do with Coach Smith's private religious beliefs or activities. This lawsuit threatens action against this school unless it actively intervenes in the religious practice of its employees. The FFRF's demand rejects religious tolerance, rejects religious accommodation and seeks to create a system where the government can dictate to its employees how, where and with whom that privately practice their religion," Hurst said in the organization's statement.

In another letter directly to Superintendent Young, Hurst said Coach Smith had done nothing wrong in practicing his religious belief and there was no constitutional violation because the act of baptism was conducted outside of school hours, after the coach's official duties were concluded for the day, on private property, and with "other individuals wishing to express their own privately-held religious beliefs."

Hurst said the coach did not request that the other players attend the baptism. Those facts were confirmed by Superintendent Young in a statement of her own.

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