After FFRF contacted a high school in Tennessee over an on-field baptism of students, several local and national media covered the issue.
A concerned area resident reported that on Aug. 7, Chad Diehl, a minister at Bethlehem Baptist Church and “character coach” for the Springfield High School football team, baptized two players on the school’s football field in front of the rest of the team and coaches. One of the coaches, Jake Buttram, tweeted a photo from the baptism with the message, “Great day for two young men being baptized in front of our team and our field. Better than winning any game or any trophy.” Head Coach Dustin Wilson retweeted a post from Diehl that included photos of the baptism and the message, “What a blessing it was to baptize these young men today in front of their football brothers.”
Covering the story nationally were Newsweek and USA Today, along with statewide media including the Nashville Tennessean, Nashville News 5, Fox 17 in Nashville, the Times Free Press in Chattanooga and WKRN in Nashville.
It is illegal for coaches to organize or participate in religious activities with students, including baptisms, FFRF reminded the district in a letter to Superintendent Chris Causey. FFRF wrote to ensure that the district ceases promoting and endorsing religion to its students through prayers, religious rituals or a “character coach.”
The school sent out a statement, defending the baptisms.
“The activities that occurred on or about Aug. 7, were student-initiated, student-led, and occurred after the practice session had ended, and after school hours,” the statement reads. “All participation was voluntary with no requirement for attendance either stated or implied.”
But FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line said that was not the case.
“It is inappropriate for a public school district to proselytize students by praying with students, baptizing students, or employing an outside religious leader to organize these activities,” writes Line. “This is especially problematic in the context of athletics, given the coercive pressure players feel to conform to coaches’ expectations so as not to disappoint coaches or hurt their standing on the team.”
FFRF is requesting that the district investigate and take the appropriate steps to ensure there will be no further illegal religious events, including any official prayers and team baptisms, during school-sponsored activities. Diehl must no longer be allowed to act as the “character coach” for the team and should no longer be given access to students as part of school-sponsored activities.
“The involvement of a public school coach in baptisms is so over the top as to be ludicrous,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “You’d be hard-pressed to cite a display of sectarian religiosity more blatant than this.”