A Middle Tennessee school district is fighting back after a national nonprofit lodged a formal complaint accusing educators of violating the U.S. Constitution when they allowed two students athletes to be baptized on the school’s football field last month in front of teammates.
Robertson County Director of Schools Chris Causey confirmed Wednesday that the baptisms took place after football practice at Springfield (Tennessee) High School on Aug. 7.
The district has reviewed the incident and determined that neither the school nor school personnel have violated any policies or laws in this matter, according to a statement Robertson County Schools released Wednesday afternoon.
“Specifically, the activities … 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.”
Robertson County Schools was in the process of having its attorney draft a response letter to the Freedom From Religion Foundation on Wednesday, Causey said. The national nonprofit, whose purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state and educate the public on matters of non-theism, reached out with a letter to the district last week, urging coaches at Springfield High School to “stop promoting and endorsing religion to students.”
The organization got involved after a concerned area resident reached out to report the incident, which was shared by team coaches via their personal accounts on social media.
The Foundation is not releasing the complainant’s identity, citing safety concerns.
In its letter, dated Sept. 5 and addressed to Causey, the Foundation notes that it’s illegal for coaches to organize or participate in religious activities with students, including baptisms.
The organization pointed out that a team “character coach,” performed the baptisms, but Causey said the individual is not employed by the district and serves in a volunteer capacity.
“They have those kinds of individuals at public universities as well,” he said.
Still, the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s Staff Attorney Chris Line called the situation inappropriate.
“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,” he wrote in a news release from the organization.
Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor agreed.
“You’d be hard-pressed to cite a display of sectarian religiosity more blatant than this,” she wrote.
The Foundation’s letter references the Twitter activity of two Springfield football coaches.
— Jake Buttram (@tankineer1871) August 7, 2019
Jake Buttram shared a photo from the baptisms 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 messages and photos shared on social media.
But Causey was quick to point out that both social media accounts were personal, and nothing was said about the baptisms through the district’s social media channels.
He also questioned the validity of the complaints.
“We have not received a single phone call from anyone asking us about (these baptisms). Zero,” the director said. “If we have concerned parents or community members, I would think they would need to contact the district office about it instead of turning to organizations that aren’t even based in Tennessee.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin, but the nonprofit’s website lists an East Tennessee chapter in Knoxville.
Press inquiries made to the Tennessee chapter’s president Wednesday were referred to the national office.
Should the district fail to respond to the organization’s letter in the next month, the group’s attorney said leaders were ready to take follow-up measures.
“These are serious allegations of Constitutional misconduct,” said Line, who’s been working with the national organization for the past two years. “I would expect them to consult an attorney, and sometimes, that takes time, as we would expect.
“We hope for a quick response with what the district will do to correct the issues.”
If the district fails to resolve the situation, Line said there could be legal repercussions.
“Any parent or resident can take action against the school district,” he said. “If we have a parent interested in pursuing that, we can step in. That’s a definite possibility.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is currently involved in an ongoing lawsuit out of West Virginia, brought by a parent against a school district that was allegedly holding Bible classes.
The organization’s roster holds more than 30,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 300 members in Tennessee.