LOUISVILLE — A mother is angry about a trip led by the head football coach at Breckinridge County High School took about 20 players on a school bus late last month to his church, where nearly half of them — including her son — were baptized.
Michelle Ammons said her 16-year-old son was baptized without her knowledge and consent, and she is upset that a public school bus was used to take players to a church service — and that the school district's superintendent was there and did not object.
"Nobody should push their faith on anybody else," said Ammons, whose son, Robert Coffey, said coach Scott Mooney told him and other players that the Aug. 26 outing would include only a motivational speaker and a free steak dinner.
"He said it would bring the team together," Robert, a sophomore, said in an interview.
Two other parents, however, said in interviews that their sons told them that Mooney had said the voluntary outing to Franklin Crossroads Baptist Church in Hardin County would include a revival.
Mooney, contacted by phone, said school district officials instructed him not to comment.
But Superintendent Janet Meeks, who is a member of the church and witnessed the baptisms, said she thinks the trip was proper because attendance was not required, and another coach paid for the gas.
Meeks said parents weren't given permission slips to sign but knew the event would include a church service, if not specifically a baptism. She said eight or nine players came forward and were baptized.
"None of the players were rewarded for going and none were punished for not going," Meeks said.
David Friedman, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said in an interview that the trip would appear to violate Supreme Court edicts on the separation of church and state — even if it was voluntary and the school district didn't pay for the fuel.
"If players want to attend the coach's church and get baptized, that's great," Friedman said. But a coach cannot solicit player attendance at school, he said, noting, "Coaches have great power and persuasion by virtue of their position, and they have to stay neutral."
However, Matt Staver, founder and general counsel for Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based group that provides free legal assistance in religious liberty cases, said there was nothing wrong with trip as long as it was voluntary and no public funds were used. He compared it to a coach inviting players to attend a play or to go see a baseball game.
Neither the ACLU nor Liberty Counsel is involved in the Breckinridge County case.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said in school prayer cases that "at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way that establishes a state religion or religious faith, or tends to do so."
In March, the court rejected an appeal from a high school football coach in New Jersey who wanted to bow his head and kneel during prayers led by his players, despite a school district policy prohibiting it.
Meeks said she would have sought the consent of parents for the baptism of students if they had been "7 or 8 or 9" years old. But she didn't think it was necessary for the players who are "16 or 17."
She said that if Robert's parents didn't know that the outing was going to include a revival service it was because "he apparently was not forthcoming with his parents."
The church's pastor, the Rev. Ron Davis, said that he requires minors to obtain their parents' consent to be baptized, but he added: "Sometimes 16-year-olds look like 18 years. We did the best we could."
He said the event on Aug. 26 "was a great service" and that attendance by the players was strictly voluntary.
"I trust the coach 100%," he said of Mooney. "He is a fine young man and he is sure not going to manipulate anyone."
Two parents, Tim Bruington and Eric Vertress, said in interviews that they knew through their children that the trip would include a revival-type service.
Bruington said his son, Tyler, a senior, decided not to go. Vertress said his son, Matthew, elected to attend and that his mother drove to the church separately for the service.
Ammons, who lives in Big Spring, said that she is a Baptist but her husband, Danny, is Catholic, and that both feel like their son should wait until he is 18 to make important decisions on religion.
"We felt he was brainwashed," she said.
She said she was prepared to drop the matter until she found out that Meeks attended the service. She said she consulted a lawyer in Elizabethtown but hasn't decided what action she will take.
"They have no right to take my son on a school bus across county lines to be a church to be baptized," she said.
While 16 years old is, in my opinion, old enough to start looking into religions and making decisions for themselves, having a football coach ask one of his or her players to go to church while at school and then using state property to get to the church, regardless of who bought the gas for the trip, is a clear violation of the establishment clause. That coach was promoting a specific religion to his players and he was doing so on government property while in a position of influence over minors. This is ridiculous that anyone involved would even feign surprise that parents might be upset. While I am of the opinion that a 16 year old is old enough to make their own religious decisions, I don't consider a coach's influence in attending this kind of event an example of a kid making up their own mind about anything. Also, I might be ok with Tristan going to something like this when he's 16 but that doesn't mean everyone should be ok with their 16 year olds attending which is why asking permission is expected. It's not a matter of 'it was voluntary so the school didn't have to' it's a matter of respect.