Atheist organization goes after college football chaplains

A national group dedicated to scrubbing religion from the public sphere is urging several Southern universities to eliminate the position of football team chaplain.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent letters last week to the presidents of Auburn University, the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, and the University of South Carolina demanding that they eliminate football chaplaincies, claiming they are a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

“It makes no difference if the chaplain is unofficial, not school-sponsored, or a volunteer,” the letters assert, “because chaplains are given access to the team as a means for coaches to impose religion, usually Christianity, on their players.”

The letters go on to cite a report that the organization released last week titled “Pray to Play,” which documents instances in which public universities (including the recipients of Tuesday’s letters) have spent money to support chaplains’ activities. Copies of the report were also sent to Mississippi State University, the University of Tennessee, Louisiana State University, the University of Missouri, the University of Washington, the University of Illinois, Florida State University, the University of Mississippi, and Clemson University, all of whom FFRF identifies as having “the most flagrant chaplaincies.”

The report contends that university-backed chaplains (with the support of sympathetic coaches) exert a “coercive power” over student-athletes thanks to the intense competition of college athletics, and that their existence violates a constitutional prohibition against public universities—which are funded and overseen by the states—or their employees endorsing, promoting, or favoring religion.

Amendment I to the U.S. Constitution states in pertinent part that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Most of the schools that received letters from FFRF have yet to respond, but Auburn University, at least, disputes the organization’s contention that team chaplains are unconstitutional.

“Chaplains are common in many public institutions, including the U.S. Congress,” Auburn said in a statement provided to “The football team chaplain isn't an Auburn employee, and participation in activities he leads are (sic) voluntary.”

Last year, FFRF sent a similar demand letter to Clemson University, and was likewise rebuffed, according to Fox Carolina.

“We believe the practices of the football staff regarding religion are compliant with the Constitution and appropriately accommodate differing religious views,” Clemson said in a statement. “Participation in religious activities is purely voluntary, and there are no repercussions for students who decline to do so.

“We will evaluate the complaints raised in the letter and will respond directly to the organization, but we believe FFRF is mistaken in its assessment,” the university continued, pointing out that, “The Supreme Court has expressly upheld the right of public bodies to employ chaplains and has noted that the use of prayer is not in conflict with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.”

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