“One nation under God,” a phrase said every morning in almost every public school in the nation. Is this a violation of the separation of church and state? According to the Freedom From Religious Foundation (FFRF), it is. Many in the Bible Belt disagree. The recent baptismal event at Villa Rica High School (VRHS) has stirred up the debate over what separation of church and state “really” means in the public school system.
A video, posted by Villa Rica First Baptist Church, showed a mass baptism that took place after school hours on the football field at VRHS on Aug. 12; it featured 18 members of the high school’s football team and one of its coaches. Now removed from the church’s YouTube channel, the video brought a mountain of criticism from the Wisconsin-based FFRF. Is this video just expressing a Southern tradition or violating the Constitution? VRHS infringed on the First Amendment by allowing the baptisms, which included the baptism of a coach, to be held on campus and then later posting a video online as an act of support.
Many cases regarding the separation of church and state in the taxpayer-funded public school system have reached the Supreme Court; some with final decisions and some not. The Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that no clerics could perform any sort of prayer, even non-denominational, on public school property. With this instituted, why would VRHS decide a baptism was of less religious importance than a simple prayer? Citing their wrongdoing, the Carroll County School System released a statement that said, “VRHS failed to follow district facility usages procedures for outside groups using school facilities.”
In the video, it was not only students who partook of the baptizing; a football coach also helped push along the movement. In this case, he abused his power by giving off the attitude that this is what the other players and students should do to partake in “camaraderie.” Students may take this as a threat; if they do not involve themselves in the ceremony, are they turning their backs on their coach or on their team? While teenagers are old enough to make decisions for themselves, they still fall under the guidance of teachers and coaches.
“With the help of the church, the entire coaching staff took advantage of their positions to impose their personal religion on students,” said FFRF Staff Attorney, Elizabeth Cavell.
The entire scene was filmed by Villa Rica First Baptist Church and later posted on their YouTube channel. Shortly after, the event was called out for its First Amendment violation and removed from the internet, only to be found on a news website. While filming a baptism itself is no concern, filming a religious ceremony on a school ground sends a message to people that VRHS backs Christianity by allowing the baptisms to take place. The FFRF received many complaints from Villa Rica locals about the video and how this attention could negatively affect their town.
The Bible Belt seems to lack this fundamental concept of separation of church and state.
“[The baptisms] were a clear violation of the separation of church and state,” said Cavell.
The constitution explicitly restricts any sort of pro-religious movement in a government-funded sanction. While this situation seems solely to revolve around the Christian faith, especially in the South, any religious affiliation by a government-funded facility, including all public schools, is defined as illegal. When schools violate this law, they put religious beliefs before their education; the question at that point is: “One nation under ‘whose’ god?”