Sept. 9, 2009 -- The actions of a Kentucky high school football coach have been questioned after he took nearly two dozen players on a field trip to an evangelist church service where nearly half the kids were baptized.
Breckinridge County High School Coach Scott Mooney last month used a public school bus to transport the kids approximately 35 miles but arranged for a volunteer driver and promised to pay for the gas himself, according to Superintendent Janet Meeks, who attended the service and witnessed the baptisms of her public school students.
"It was completely voluntary," Meeks told ABCNews.com, noting that of the team's 46 players, about 20 elected to go on the trip. Of those attendees, nine were baptized.
"They didn't get anything for attending," she said. "They didn't get anything for not attending."
The mothers of one of the baptized boys has said publicly that she was upset to learn her son had been baptized without her consent on a trip sponsored by a public school employee.
"Nobody should push their faith on anybody else," Michelle Ammons told the Louisville Courier-Journal." They have no right to take my son on a school bus across county lines to a church to be baptized."
But Meeks said that Ammons was the only parent to express disatisfaction with the trip. A couple of parents were in church at the time of the service.
The purpose of the outing was to see noted evangelist Ronnie Hill, and that was seemingly known to every parent but Ammons, Meeks said. Since the trip, school officials have spoken with Ammons in an effort to rectify the situation, but Ammons told the Courier-Journal that she is considering legal action.
Mooney, the school's coach for the last few years, she said, "talked with the kids a few times about what the trip invoved."
Mooney did not immediately return phone and e-mail messages.
No permission slips were issued, she said, because "it wasn't considered a school-sponsored event."
Bill Sharp, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said the trip seemed to violate the Supreme Court's separation of church and state clause, especially since the coach likely discussed the trip with students during practices.
"The message conveyed to the students is there's an official endorsement," Sharp told ABCNews.com.
"There's certainly a coersive element," he said. "He's in a position of authority."
Kentucky, in the heart of the Bible Belt, has been the source of previous complaints about government encroachment on the promotion of religious viewpoints, Sharp said.
Though he could not confirm or deny if the American Civil Liberties Unio of Kentucky was investigating the Breckinridge County High School incident or if any complaints had been filed, Sharp said that "religious issues and religious liberty in general are a frequent topic of debate here in Kentucky."
But Meeks said she did not see the trip as pushing religious beliefs on anyone.
"The intent was all good. It's unfortunate it's gotten to this," Meeks said. "Certainly it was not our intent to violate anyone's rights."
Football Baptism: Brainwashing or Team Bonding?
Ammons, who could not be reached for comment, told the Courier-Journal that while she was raised Baptist and her husband Catholic, they wanted their son to wait until he was 18 to make religious decisions for himself.
"We felt he was brainwashed," she told the newspaper.
Meeks said that all the boys who were baptized did so of their own volition. The superintendent said she was at the church for her own personal religious experience and not as the school official. She said the boys' baptism involved complete immersion, meaning the students were fully dunked in a large pool of water.
"It was a decision they made to do," she said, adding that the kids who went on the trip seemed to enjoy themselves. "They really acted like they had a great time. I heard they talked about it all the way home."
Hill, she said, is known for speaking at NASCAR-sponsored events. On his Web site for Ronnie Hill Ministries, the homepage says that "Ronnie preaches an anointed but simple message of salvation and repentance; that it's the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that through His blood alone, we are saved."
Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, said that while state law prohibits teachers or school employees from preaching or imposing their own beliefs in the classroom, Mooney's field trip "is a little different."
The state's law bans "adult-led religious activities," she said, but only in a school setting. There are no such provisions for extracurricular activities. And the districts generally have a wide-berth when it comes to handling such trips.
"There's no state law that says you have to have a policy related specifically to this," she said.
It remains to be seen whether the controversy over Mooney's field trip will mean policy changes at the school. Meeks, in her first year as superintendent, said she would "wait and see" if anything is done differently in the future.