AUBURN, Ala. (BP) — There was no baptismal at Unite Auburn, an evangelistic event that drew thousands to Auburn University’s Neville Arena. But event preacher and Southern Baptist pastor Jonathan Pokluda heard water was nearby.
Scores went in tow about a half mile away to the pond at Red Barn, another Auburn University venue, to be baptized.
“That wasn’t the plan,” Pokluda, teaching and vision pastor of Harris Creek Baptist Church in McGregor, Texas, told FOX News of the spontaneous baptisms after Unite Auburn. “We tried to find water. We found out there was a red barn and water nearby. We went out there. Thousands of students gathered around the pond. Several of them wanted to be baptized. We began to have those conversations, make sure they understood the Gospel, that they hadn’t been baptized as a believer before.
“And we went to dunking.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit group of atheists based in Madison, Wis., didn’t like the Sept. 12 mass baptism, reportedly of between 100 and more than 200 adults. Days later, they sent a letter to Auburn University President Christopher Roberts calling for the ouster of head football coach Hugh Freeze and other members of the athletic staff involved in the event, the FFRF said in a Sept. 21 press release.
The mass baptism at a state university was a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, the FFRF argued in the letter described as a warning.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey shot back with a letter of her own.
“I take seriously my responsibility to faithfully execute the laws – and that includes safeguarding the religious freedom of all Alabamians, religious and nonreligious alike,” Ivey wrote the FFRF Sept. 22. “But the facts described in your recent letters do not violate anyone’s religious liberty. Even according to your own account, these events all involved adults interacting with other adults, and no one faces any threat of adverse consequences for declining to participate.
“What is more, requiring college officials to entirely remove faith from their lives could well violate those officials’ own religious freedom. After all, the First Amendment protects the ‘free exercise’ of religion just as much as it prohibits government establishment of religion.”
In her letter, Ivey was also responding to a previous letter from FFRF contending that Snead State Community College in Boaz, Ala., violates the Establishment Clause when its president leads staff in prayer and shares Scripture.
“In my view, we should be more welcoming, not less, to expressions of faith,” Ivey wrote, “and society would be worse off were we to purge religion from our public institutions.”
Pokluda told Baptist Press he’s seen many college students respond to the Gospel.
“It has been amazing to see how God is moving through college campuses. What happened at Auburn is more of what God is doing around our country,” he said. “Anytime there is a movement of God, there will be those who don’t understand. That has always been the case.”
While the FFRF has not taken any court action against Auburn, similar cases have been before the court. In a high-profile case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2022 that high school assistant football coach Joe Kennedy was unlawfully fired for leading prayers on the field after games.
After a drawn-out trek through the legal system, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in October 2022 that Kennedy’s football field prayers were protected speech.
The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which submitted friend of the court briefs in Kennedy’s defense, continues to fight for religious freedom in the public square.
The commission “will continue to advocate – just as we did for Coach Kennedy – for the ability of all people of all faiths to live out their beliefs in the public square without fear of harm or retribution,” ERLC Policy Manager Hannah Daniel said in the Kennedy case.
ERLC President Brent Leatherwood pointed out religious liberty and freedom of conscience protections in his latest advocacy to Congress.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ senior writer.)