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FFRF complains baptisms on RHS football field were “unconstitutional”

Three people, including two students, were baptized after football practice on Oct. 2 at an RHS football practice field and the Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent a letter of complaint to the Russellville City Schools saying the event was “unconstitutional”.
Three people, including two students, were baptized after football practice on Oct. 2 at an RHS football practice field and the Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent a letter of complaint to the Russellville City Schools saying the event was “unconstitutional”.

Officials with the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter of complaint to Russellville City Schools on Thursday citing “constitutional violations” due to recent baptisms that took place on one of the Russellville football practice fields.

According to the FFRF, they were contacted by a “concerned local resident” who alerted them to the baptisms that occurred on Oct. 2 that were documented on social media accounts, including the Twitter account for Russellville head football coach and athletic director Mark Heaton.

The letter of complaint from the FFRF stated they were informed that Tanner Hall, a local youth minister who the FFRF also identified as the team’s chaplain, baptized players on the football field after practice on Oct. 2. The letter also quotes Heaton’s Twitter post, which included pictures of the players and a caption that read,  “Three baptized after practice Thursday. Building the Kingdom!!”

FFRF staff attorney Andrew Seidel said that it’s 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 in a release.

Heaton confirmed there were three baptisms after practice on Oct. 2, two of them being players and one of which was Heaton’s 37-year-old brother.

“This was something that the students came to me and told me they wanted to do,” Heaton said.

“Neither of these kids had a home church, and they had accepted Christ and wanted to be baptized in front of their teammates who also shared their faith and wanted to be there to support them.

“This wasn’t school-sanctioned. This was something these students wanted to do, and I believe it was important to let them do this because these kids are going through a very important part of their lives. They are searching for something to believe in, and as adults we are put here to guide these children. When these kids came to me with this request to be baptized with their teammates, I felt like it was important to support them.

“We are going to be here for our kids regardless of the decisions they make, good or bad, but there are so many bad decisions made today by young people that it’s important to support the good decisions they make.”

The baptisms came just four days after one of the team’s captains, junior Austin Kitterman, sustained life-threatening injuries in an ATV accident in the early morning hours of Sept. 28.

That night, hundreds of students and community members gathered at the RHS Tiger Stadium to pray for Kitterman – another event Heaton said was student-led.

“This was a tragic situation that our team and our students were dealing with,” Heaton said.

“At the time, Austin was fighting for his life, and these students organized that prayer vigil and turned to prayer during that difficult time and came together to pray for their teammate and classmate.

“This situation brought up a lot of questions for these kids who were searching for something to believe in and something to fill that void they were feeling. All that happened just a few days before these players asked to be baptized, so that was the context that all this was taking place in.”

Seidel, in the FFRF’s statement, also addressed the claim that Hall was the team’s chaplain.

“It is also inappropriate for a public school to offer religious leaders unique access to befriend and proselytize students,” he said. “Accordingly, public high school football teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team, or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain, because public schools may not advance or promote religion.”

Russellville City School Superintendent Rex Mayfield said on Thursday that the team doesn’t have a chaplain and that the school has never authorized an official position for a chaplain for the team.

“There may have been people who referred to Tanner Hall as the team’s chaplain, but that isn’t an official position, paid or volunteer, and never has been,” Mayfield said.

Heaton said Hall, as well as other youth ministers in the community, often volunteer in different capacities for the team, but no one is the team’s “chaplain”.

“Our team members know Tanner and some of these other guys because of the fact that they are at our practices and our games, but no one is the actual chaplain for the team,” he said.

“They do things like paint the field for us and run video cameras for us at the games. They are around a lot and the kids know them because of that and know that they are youth ministers at different churches in the community. They asked that Tanner baptize them because they knew him. He wasn’t there to baptize anyone because he was the team’s chaplain.”

Heaton also noted that some of the players left before the baptisms took place.

“This wasn’t a school-sponsored or mandated event,” he said.

“Any player or coach was free to leave at any point.”

Senator Roger Bedford has offered his support for the players, coaches and administration in wake of the FFRF’s complaints.

“I fully support anyone who wants to publicly show their commitment to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” Bedford said. “These young men made a commitment to change their lives and wanted to celebrate that decision with their teammates and coaches.

“These attacks coming from organizations such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation are an attack on our rights to publicly display our religious beliefs, a freedom we all enjoy as Americans. As a Christian, I am offended by these attacks on my constituents. To my understanding, the school played no part in the organization of the event and broke no laws in the process.”

Even though the baptisms were the main focus of the letter of complaint, the FFRF also addressed the personal teacher web pages located on the RCS website and noted that there were two teachers at Russellville High School that included “religious messages” on their pages and mentioned their faith or referenced Bible verses, which the FFRF called “inappropriate”.

The FFRF contended the teacher pages shouldn’t contain religious messages since they were directly accessed through the school district’s website and would “lead a reasonable observer to conclude that the District and its employees endorse religion, specifically Christianity” and that the messages would “turn any nonbelieving or non-Christian Russellville students, teachers, and staff members into outsiders in their own communities.”

Mayfield said the school system has addressed all the concerns the FFRF had listed.

“We have addressed the concerns with the teacher pages, and none of the events that took place concerning the baptisms at the football field were school-sanctioned,” he said.

“This was something that took place after school hours and after football practice was over with and wasn’t a pre-approved activity.”

Heaton said the pictures he posted to social media will remain on his account and he will continue to stand by what took place that day.

“That is my own personal Twitter page that has nothing to do with the school or my job,” he said.

“The thought never once crossed my mind to take any of it down.

“This organization has criticized statements I have made on my personal account, but on their organization’s official website, they make statements concerning Christianity and say that the Bible is wrong. They are endorsing their stance on religion from their organization’s page, but the things I have said have been on my own personal page, and I stand by it.”