An Alabama school district has landed itself in atheists activists' crosshairs after a high school football coach allowed players to be baptized on the field following a practice session earlier this month.
After a "concerned citizen" reached out to the Freedom From Religion Foundation to complain about the incident, the group sent a letter to officials at Russellville City Schools in Russellville, Alabama, citing "unconstitutional religious activity" and asking the district to investigate.
The atheist organization contends that it is illegal for public schools to host or promote religious activities, claiming that both the head coach, Mark Heaton, and the so-called team chaplain, Tanner Hall, had both subsequently publicized the October 2 baptisms on their social media accounts.
A tweet dated October 3 on an account attributed to Heaton reads, "Three baptized after practice Thursday. Building the Kingdom!!" and it includes accompanying pictures.
Three baptized after practice Thursday. Building the Kingdom!! pic.twitter.com/XpSzt43csY— Mark Heaton (@MarkHeaton6) October 3, 2014
A separate social media message from Hall that was posted to Facebook is also cited in the Freedom From Religion Foundation's letter. He wrote, "Man I love that God allows me to do what I do! Baptized players today after practice." This post also includes photos of the baptisms.
The atheist activist group made it clear in its letter to the district that it believes these acts were unconstitutional and that a team chaplain cannot be legally employed by public school athletic teams.
"It is ... inappropriate for a public school to offer religious leaders unique access to befriend and proselytize students," Freedom From Religion Foundation attorney Andrew Seidel said in a statement. "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."
Heaton confirmed with the Franklin County Times that three baptisms did unfold after practice October 2, adding that one of them was his 37-year-old brother; he said that the event was something students had expressed they wanted and that it was not "school-sanctioned."
"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," Heaton told the outlet. "This wasn’t school-sanctioned. 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."
The coach, who noted that some players left before the baptism took place and that it was an optional event, said that he felt it was important to support the kids when they came and asked about a baptism.
Superintendent Rex Mayfield added that the football team doesn't have an official chaplain, despite the Freedom From Religion Foundation's contentions.
"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," he said.
The atheist group's letter also took aim at teachers' official biographies on school district websites, which activists claim contain inappropriate Christian messages. Read the letter in its entirety here.