School under fire for mass baptism before football practice

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VILLA RICA, Ga. - Video and pictures posted online of a mass baptism before football practice at a metro area high school are causing controversy across the county.

Several people on social media and the web say it’s injecting religion into a public school.

The Villa Rica School District has now opened an investigation into the incident, which happened on the practice field at Villa Rica High School.

The church behind the mass baptism has pulled the video of the event from its website, but critics say it's a clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The mass baptism took place before practice last month.

A video clip from Facebook shows one of the coaches getting baptized to applause and cheers. It was organized by First Baptist Villa Rica.

The pastor, Kevin Williams, told Channel 2’s Tom Regan that school administrators were not aware it was happening. He says it was the wish of one assistant coach and nearly 20 players to get baptized on the field before practice on a Wednesday afternoon last month.

“It was voluntary, it was after school, it was before practice,” Williams said.

Those on hand watching included team members and some cheerleaders.

“I just felt it was a great experience. It brought us all together,” said one cheerleader. “It wasn’t forcing anybody. It was a volunteer thing. If you wanted to come support your team, you could.”

Regan spoke with a member of the church who also saw it all.

“It was a beautiful sight. They were doing what they felt was right on their football field and nobody was forced,” she said.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation sent Regan at statement saying, “Holding team baptisms at football practice with coaches participating is a clear Constitutional violation and an abuse of the coach's position."

Many students and parents told Regan that they don’t see it that way.

“I don’t see anything wrong with it. I think they should be able to do that,” one student said.

“I think it should be allowed. If the parents are okay with it and the children are okay with it, then I would be okay,” Lucinda Woods said.

Williams says it was a soulful, bonding experience.

“There were African Americans, white kids, Hispanics, everyone was hugging each other. It was great,” he said.

Carroll County Assistant Superintendent of Administrative and Support Services Terry S. Jones sent a statement saying:

"The Carroll County School System has completed an investigation of an incident that occurred at Villa Rica High School (VRHS) on August 12, 2015, after school and prior to football practice.  The incident involved baptisms on the school’s football field.  The School District had no knowledge that this event was scheduled to happen at VRHS.  The principal’s understanding was that the event was a church sponsored activity that was to be conducted after school and he was not aware of student involvement.  From the investigation the School District has concluded that VRHS failed to follow district facility usages procedures for outside groups using school facilities.  There were also concerns regarding the timing of the event and participation of school personnel.  These concerns have been addressed with appropriate personnel.  The School District is committed to continuing to work with our local community while meeting state and federal guidelines."