The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is complaining about an on-field baptism at a Russellville High School football practice last Thursday:
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel said it is illegal for a public school to “organize, sponsor, or lead religious activity.”
“Such sponsorship of religion is especially problematic in the context of athletics, given the pressure players feel to conform to what coaches expect of them so as not to affect their playing time or lose favor with the coaches,” Seidel said.
He also said it is inappropriate to a public school to offer religious leaders access to befriend students.
FFRF is asking Russellville City Schools to remove the position of team chaplain. They also addressed religious content on teachers’ personal online pages and said it was inappropriate.
FFRF Staff Attorney, Sam Grover, said that it is inappropriate for any school to endorse religion.
The Russellville Golden Tigers football team has been a fixture in Franklin County life for decades. A major source of civic pride, the team has never lacked for community support: even at the lowest point of the 2008 recession, local businesses were still able to buy a $300,000 Jumbotron scoreboard for the the team. Their stadium is the largest structure in the county and is generally filled to capacity under the Friday night lights.
Of course, Russellville is also a small Southern town isolated from urban centers. Nine out of ten residents lives within a mile of Highway 43, and the area is predictably rural and conservative. As you might expect, the FRFF is pretty unpopular there right now, but I’m glad they’ve taken up this fight. For his part, the chaplain is claiming that the students wanted the baptism during practice; while he may believe that is true, it changes nothing. A public school’s grounds are the wrong place for a baptism, period, and the FRFF would never have heard about the event if someone hadn’t been upset enough to tell them.
Football is itself a kind of religion here, and as anyone who has ever watched Alabama Crimson Tide fans praying on TV during a close game knows, the two activities have always had a close relationship in the minds of spectators as well as players. For them, religious faith is a necessary component of victory.
My high school’s football coaches were good men, but they were also unapologetic about their majoritarian Christianity. Like Ainsley Earhardt, the Fox News host who said Wednesday that atheists “need to understand the culture” in the South and stop telling public schools to remove religious trappings from the halls of instruction, our coaches were unable to hear the oppressive spirit in their own words when they told me I was going to hell for being unbaptized.
What these sectarians don’t understand is that their actions have negative consequences for the very religion they represent. The constant religious indoctrination was already insufferable when I attended public high school in this part of Alabama a quarter-century ago, but we didn’t even have team chaplains back then — they are a new tradition that evangelicals created for the sole purpose of turning gridirons into boot camps for Jesus. Why are millennials turning away from religion? Because their parents’ generation fought an existential battle against liberalism and modernity by trying to bind their children to religion so tightly that they resented it.
Though few in Russellville may ever credit them for it, the FRFF is actually trying to save Christians from their own worst impulses.