Once again, a group in the North is having an issue with one in the South.
In a press release titled “FFRF tackles Auburn football program’s religiosity,” the Wisconsin-based group Freedom From Religion Foundation announced that it is “is redoubling its efforts to stop the unconstitutionally excessive piety in Auburn University’s football program.” The group’s main issue with the university is football chaplain Chette Williams, a former Tigers linebacker, and what it describes as “the football chaplain program at” the university.
The FFRF claims it submitted an open-records request in 2014 asking for all documents related to the chaplain specifically and the chaplain program in general, even submitting a $500 deposit as required by law. To date, the university has not provided any documentation, the FFRF claimed. The group’s interest in the issue was renewed after, the press release stated, “[a] number of people recently reached out to FFRF to complain after AL.com posted a video showing Williams leading the Auburn football team in prayer before a football game against the University of Southern Mississippi on Sept. 29.”
From the group’s most recent release:
FFRF would like to remind Auburn that employing a chaplain and giving him unfettered access to a captive audience of football players is unconstitutional. While student athletes are free to pray, either individually or as group, university staff members should not be leading, participating in or encouraging students to engage in religious exercises — or hiring “chaplains” to do so — as courts have repeatedly affirmed.
“Auburn needs to shut down the prayer and chaplaincy that it has permitted for so long in its football program,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “By allowing it to continue, it is giving its official seal of approval to Christian proselytizing that is not only unconstitutional but also alienating to non-Christian and nonreligious athletes. No student should be expected to pray to play.
In a statement to the Opelika-Auburn News, the university countered the FFRF’s demands by stating that “[t]he football team chaplain isn’t an Auburn employee, and participation in activities he leads are voluntary.” The chaplain’s salary is reportedly paid by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, although he does have an auburn.edu email address and in the football program’s staff directory.
The FFRF argued in a 2015 letter to the university that “it makes no difference if the chaplain is unofficial, not school-sponsored, or a volunteer, because chaplains are given access to the team as a means for coaches to impose religion, usually Christianity, on their players. Under the circumstances, the chaplain’s actions are attributable to the university and those actions are unconstitutional.” AU countered that “[c]haplains are common in many public institutions, including the U.S. Congress.”
In 2014, the group also targeted the religious culture around the Clemson football program, claiming that “the football coaching staff is doing a number of things to promote Christianity to their student-athletes” such as conducting Bible studies with their players.
“We believe the practices of the football staff regarding religion are compliant with the Constitution and appropriately accommodate differing religious views,” the university wrote in response to the FFRF’s claims. “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.”