A Georgia high school football coach is in hot water after organizing a baptism service on the field last month. A YouTube video of the service garnered national media attention and has led to questions about the event’s constitutionality.
On Aug. 17, Andy Szatkowski, the Villa Rica High School defensive coordinator, and 18 players were baptized before practice in a plastic tub-turned-baptismal-pool placed on the school’s football field. First Baptist Church Villa Rica’s senior pastor, Kevin Williams, helped orchestrate the event.
The church posted a video of the baptisms on its YouTube page with the caption, “Take a look and see how God is STILL in our schools!” according to WXIA-TV, the NBC news affiliate in Atlanta. A clip of the video shown on its Sept. 1 broadcast shows dozens of onlookers clapping and cheering as the students come up out of the water one by one.
The church removed the video on Sept. 2 after the story went viral.
Annie Gaylor, co-president of Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), told WXIA-TV she thought the mass baptism was a misuse of the coach’s authority to promote his “personal religious agenda.”
“Starting this video out, they call it a step of obedience, and then the camera pans to the students,” Gaylor said. “It’s forcing them to undergo a religious ritual to be accepted on a team. How are they going to cross their coach? They have no choice. It’s proselytizing, it’s coercive, and it’s not legal in our schools.”
FFRF sent a letter to the school district requesting an investigation into the matter and demanding the district ensure there are “no further religious events “to avoid being sued.
But in a 20-minute interview posted by WXIA-TV, Williams offered a different explanation. The pastor explained that Szatkowski and several of the players came forward to make first-time professions of faith at a communitywide church service called “Gridiron Day” on Aug. 9. When Williams followed up with Szatkowski about getting baptized as a public proclamation of his newfound faith, Szatkowski asked if they could do the baptism on the football field due to his love of the game. Williams said he agreed—as long as they “followed the rules.”
“[It was] after school, totally voluntary, not during practice, [and] independent,” Williams said on the video. “[We] didn’t advertise. Some players came; some didn’t. Some were playing on the field, some in the locker room, some in the weight room. Nobody had to be there. … We thought we were following the guidelines.”
Williams said they weren’t trying to make any statements, and if he could do it all over again, he would ask permission from the school board first. And if they said no, he would be “obliged not to do it.”
“I think there’s a bigger story that a lot of the news media is missing,” Williams said. “In that baptism, if you see the video, there’s African-American kids, there’s white kids, there’s Hispanic kids. And they’re all jumping up and embracing each other and everybody’s clapping and applauding. This is exciting! … The community has been through some tough times.”
Villa Rica is a small city 30 miles west of Atlanta. The 20,000-member community has seen several student deaths in the last three years: one football player and two middle-schoolers committed suicide, one student died from an asthma attack, and another drowned, Williams said, adding the baptism represents much needed “good stuff.” In addition, he said the hope of Christ is helping heal racial tension in the area.
“It’s a good thing to see different cultural backgrounds all standing together, hugging, crying. A band of brothers,” Williams said. “It’s unified them in a special way. That’s been the best thing to come out of it.”
— by Sarah Padbury