RUSSELLVILLE, Ala. (Christian Examiner)—An Alabama school superintendent has instructed teachers to scrub references to "things of faith" from online biographies on district websites, causing one Christian trial attorney to raise concerns about the violation of these educators' religious liberty.
Responding to a complaint about the baptism of several high school football players which took place on the field after practice, Russellville City Schools Superintendent Rex Mayfield told a local news station he had scrutinized the online biographies of teachers.
"We've asked our teachers on their school web page to edit their messages of faith if they have one and maybe not talk about things of faith, but other personal things they can tell about themselves," Mayfield told WTVM.com. "Even where they go to church would be fine."
It appears that the school is way overreacting and in their overreaction they are actually violating the constitution that they are trying to uphold
David Gibbs, president and general counsel of the National Center for Life and Liberty, said asking the teachers to remove "faith" messages from the websites is a violation of their constitutional rights if the websites allow teachers to speak freely about their other interests.
"To totally ban all religious content would be showing hostility towards religion," Gibbs said.
The superintendent apparently reacted to a letter sent by the Freedom From Religious Foundation—a "freethought association" located in Madison, Wisconsin—notifying the district that a chaplain for the football team, Tanner Hall, and head coach and athletic director, Mark Heaton, had each shared a message on social media about the players' baptisms.
"Man I love that God allows me to do what I do!" Hall said, according to the news report. "Baptized players today after practice."
The letter claimed the Oct. 2 baptisms were illegal religious activities, saying it is inappropriate for a public school to offer religious leaders access to students. The out-of-state group also took exception to the district's teacher's web pages containing "bible verses and other faith references deemed to be inappropriate for a school setting."
The coach said the students recently bonded after some family members died and a team member was hospitalized.
"I am so proud of the decision that they made to make a public statement the way that they did in front of their teammates," Heaton told WTVM.com. "It is a hard thing for teenagers to do these days."
The coach's affirmation of the students shouldn't concern the district, Gibbs said, because such affirmation could be considered the employee's right to free speech.
Maxfield said in the news story the baptism was not approved through regular channels.
FFRF called for the removal of the team's chaplain, but the coach said Hall isn't an official chaplain, is not an employee of the school, and that the baptism was after practice, voluntary, and student led.
Gibbs said even if Hall was the team chaplain, "it is a completely legitimate position used in corporations and schools across the nation" to serve the religious needs of individuals.
"In America's public schools, students do have free speech rights," Gibbs said. "If this was a purely voluntary act, the free speech rights of students would be protected."
In reference to the FFRF's laundry list of concerns—Gibbs said such letters are meant to put a "chill" on protected First Amendment rights.
"It appears that the school is way overreacting and in their overreaction they are actually violating the constitution that they are trying to uphold," Gibbs said of the superintendent's response to the teacher's biographies and web pages—even if posted on the district web site.
Alabama State Sen. Roger Bedford (D-Russellville), a member of Russellville's First Baptist Church, released a statement Oct. 25 in support of the two players, the school, and the head coach—saying neither of those baptized had a home church and had asked to be baptized in front of their teammates.
"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," Bedford stated. "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."