When Newton (Miss.) High senior Garrick Alford saw Ryan Smith in the school’s cafeteria one day in early September, the middle linebacker informed the Tigers’ head football coach he wanted to discuss two things, as Smith recalls.
The first subject was football-related. Alford wanted to run the ball. In response, Smith said they would work on that during practice.
The second topic was unrelated to football. Alford, as Smith recalls, wanted to be saved.
After conversations over the course of the following couple of weeks, Alford decided in Smith’s office at the school that he wanted to be baptized.
Smith then asked Alford which church he wanted to be baptized in. Alford had an alternative preference. He wanted to be baptized outside and surrounded by his football teammates.
That’s how on an afternoon last month Smith ended up dunking Alford in a plastic tub of water, baptizing him in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit outside a dentist office across the road from where the Tigers practice.
As captured in a video that has since received more than 130,000 views on Facebook, Smith said of Alford before performing the act, “he made a decision that a man’s supposed to make. He accepted Christ as his savior.”
The Clarion-Ledger was unable to contact Alford or his family for comment.
From the perspective of onlookers and many who later watched the video, the baptism was an uplifting display. One comment on Facebook read, “This so so (sic) wonderful! Such a touching and heart warming (sic) video. They are so blessed to have him as Coach. Made me cry alligator tears this morning.”
But was it unconstitutional as a violation of the separation of church and state?
Freedom From Religion Foundation attorney Sam Grover said it was in a letter addressed to Newton Municipal School District Superintendent Virginia Young.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking for assurances from the district that this won’t happen again.
“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. This appearance of school sponsorship of a religious message violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” Grover wrote.
In a statement to The Clarion-Ledger, Young maintained support of Smith because the baptism was performed away from the school and it was voluntary. Smith told The Clarion-Ledger that he made it clear to players that they did not have to attend the event. He also said he took what he believed were other necessary steps in making sure the baptism was not done on school grounds and occurred after practice.
“The baptism of a Newton Municipal School District student did not occur on school property and did not occur during school hours or during any organized school activity, thus the district feels this is a private matter of choice for that student,” Young said in the statement. “Any additional Newton Municipal School District students that attended the baptism did so as their own voluntary act and decision.”
Grover said those factors do not matter.
“The coach organized this event, he promoted it to his team and all of that was done in his capacity as a coach,” Grover said. “He cannot be promoting his personal religious beliefs to student-players on that team. He only has access to these student players because of his position as a public school representative. He is abusing that privilege.”
Smith said he did not think he was doing anything wrong, and in Newton, a small rural city about 30 miles west of Meridian, several others told The Clarion-Ledger they agreed with him. In places like Newton, it is not surprising to have people not see a distinction between the church and the school because oftentimes, the school actually becomes an extension of the Christian outreach effort, one Newton resident said.
Smith became Newton High’s football coach in the spring and since then has tried to rebuild a program that had won only 12 games over the last five years through physical, mental and moral training. He has implemented a weekly “character training session,” that sometimes features guest speakers, for example, he said. Newton has a 6-3 overall record this season and may make the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.
It is unclear whether the Freedom From Religion Foundation is considering suing the Newton Municipal School District for what the organization views as a violation of the separation of church and state.
“If the district continues to allow its representatives to proselytize students, it exposes itself to serious legal liability from any student or parent who rightfully wants their public school district to leave religion as a private choice for individuals and families to make,” Grover said.
The school district’s attorney is expected to speak with Grover this week.
“My hope is that he will communicate to the superintendent why a coach-organized and coach-led baptism, with the coach having promoted the event to his players, is still unconstitutional even if it did take place off of school property,” Grover said.