On Sept. 14, after a practice, football players at Heritage High School in Ringgold, Ga., were baptized in memory of a former student who died earlier in the month.
Katie Beth Carter was killed in a car crash over Labor Day weekend while on her way back to Alabama’s Jacksonville State University. A recent Heritage graduate, Carter had been a cheerleader and a student manager for the football team.
As Carter was a devout Christian, the baptism in her name was roundly applauded by many in the community. Carter’s older brother, Jacob, is a practicing minister and former Heritage High football player. He performed the baptisms, which were done in a 150-gallon Rubbermaid water tank, on 11 players.
“It was a powerful afternoon I’ll remember forever,” Heritage football coach E.K. Slaughter told Georgia’s WTVC.
Carter’s sister, Kimi, is a sophomore at Heritage High who filmed the baptism. Her video below has already amassed more than 46,000 views (and climbing) and has been shared 860-plus times on Facebook, and the comments below the post are largely positive.
Of course, holding baptisms at a school is not something on which all are on the same proverbial page. Liz Cavell, a staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), says the actions at Heritage High violate the constitution.
“Courts have repeatedly ruled that public schools cannot appear to endorse, promote, or favor religion in general or any religion in particular,” Cavell told Vocativ. “A head coach organizing or leading a team baptism, encouraging the students being baptized — these actions unmistakably communicate to the players and students present that the coach is in favor of the baptism, and that those being baptized into Christianity are doing something that pleases the coach.”
The FFRF believes that the tragic event that inspired this baptism does not make the matter any more ethical. “Losing a beloved recent graduate is a terrible tragedy and we understand the district community must cope and grieve together,” Cavell said. “But this can and should be done in a way that does not give the clear impression that the school district endorses religion or a particular religion.”
This is not the first time a controversy of this type has popped up in Georgia, as a similar instance occurred just last year at Villa Rica High School.
Similar to the case in Ringgold, the Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a letter last year asking the Villa Rica School District to “immediately investigate and take action to ensure there will be no further illegal religious events.”
As the Vocativ piece notes, the root of this issue is the relationship between two clauses of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. One clause establishes the division of church and state, while the other guarantees the right of all citizens to practice their individual religion. When these two clauses collide as they did in Georgia, it presents challenges.
“As Christians, we are called to be obedient to authority,” Slaughter told Vocativ. “So the last thing we would want to do would be to go against the rules that we have in place by the people that are in authority. So we tried to make sure we did it the right way and that it was not a school event or a football event, but a FCA event that was done by an alumnus, not an employee. So that should cover us hopefully, legally.”
The Freedom from Religion Foundation says they want the school system to pay attention to this law and not let it happen again.
Catoosa County Superintendent Denia Reese told WTVC that there is no current policy regarding staff members leading religious activities.
The debate will continue, however.