VILLA RICA, Ga. (AP) — The pastor of a Georgia church involved in a mass baptism before a high school football practice said Thursday the school had nothing to do with the ritual, except that it took place on a school football field.
Eighteen students and one coach were baptized that day, the Rev. Kevin Williams, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Villa Rica, told The Associated Press. The baptisms occurred after school, before football practice, he said.
“It was voluntary. Nobody was forced into anything,” Williams said.
The Aug. 17 baptisms drew criticism from a religious-freedom group after the church posted on the Internet video of the players being dunked into a small tub of water.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a letter to Carroll County school officials Tuesday asking the district to investigate. The organization contends that the action constitutes “proselytizing,” is coercive, and is not legal in schools.
But Williams said the baptisms have had a positive effect on the team members.
“They’re 0-2 this year, but you’d think they’re 15-0 and already won the state championship. That’s how they’re acting,” Williams said.
The school’s only involvement was that the field is on school property, and “last time we checked, we the taxpayers paid for that field,” the pastor added.
Williams said he has no regrets and would baptize others if they wish, though he said he would not do so if the school asked him not to.
“As far as baptizing people, I’m a Southern Baptist pastor -- I’m going to baptize them,” he said Thursday. “If they want to get right with God, I’m all in.”
The school district is taking the “appropriate steps” to investigate, Carroll County assistant superintendent Terry S. Jones said in a statement. School officials weren’t immediately available for further comment on Thursday.
Villa Rica is a city of 4,000 about 30 miles west of Atlanta.