The nation's largest secularist organization is renewing its effort to pressure some of the nation's most popular college football teams to get rid of their chaplains, arguing that coaches violate students' First Amendment rights by instituting chaplaincy programs.
Last August, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent letters to a number of public colleges and universities telling them that allowing Christian chaplains to minister to their football teams establishes a favoritism toward Christianity and coerces non-Christian athletes to take part so that their standing with coaches and teammates won't be diminished.
The organization, which advocates for a strict separation of church and state, released an in-depth report titled "Pray to Play" last year, highlighting a number of public colleges that have chaplaincy programs and schools that use public funds to fly chaplains to away games, provide hotel rooms for them and their families, and give them per-diem payments.
Although some of the schools have taken measures to alleviate the organization's concerns, a handful of college teams have not.
On Sept. 2, FFRF sent letters to leaders at Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, University of Missouri, the University of Wisconsin and the University of South Carolina telling them that "even if the chaplaincy were strictly voluntary, that fact does not alter the unconstitutionality of the practice."
"Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation," FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor asserted in the letters.
In an interview with The Christian Post, FFRF staff attorney Andrew Seidel argued that the coaches in these football programs are simply using the chaplaincy programs to coerce their players to embrace Christianity.
"If you look back at this, this is not meant to facilitate the free exercise of student religion," Seidel said. "It is meant to get the students to be Christians and that is part of the problem."
"The fact that it is only Christian chaplains that are promoted is very problematic," he continued. "The most problematic is how coercive it is. There is no real way for students to opt out of this without some sort of impact on them, whether in the eyes of the coaches or in the eyes of the other players. Their standing on the team is going to be diminished if they don't participate in the things the coach has said he wants them to participate in."
Seidel explained that there are some circumstances where it is appropriate for the government to provide chaplains, such as when people are in prison or overseas in the military and their freedom of religion is burdened. However, Seidel contends that college football players do not have their free exercise of religion burdened and, therefore, don't need to be provided chaplains by the schools.
"In almost all the cases, there are 50, 60, 70 student religious groups on campus or right next to campus that they can freely exercise their religion with," Seidel said. "They don't need to have it imposed by the coach."
CP reached out to all five schools for a response to the continued pressure from FFRF.
As chaplain Derrick Moore continues to pray with the Georgia Tech football team before games and receives compensation from the school for his religious services, Georgia Tech's director of media relations and issues management, Lance Wallace, simply told CP that the Georgia Tech Athletic Association "is pleased with the services and support provided by its consultant."
After the University of Missouri received FFRF's report last year, they quickly informed the organization that the school had no plans to make and changes to its volunteer chaplaincy program.
In response to FFRF's renewed pressure, Mizzou associate athletic director Chad Moller told CP that the school does not view its chaplaincy program as coercive.
"[I]t's simply a service that is provided to anyone interested, knowing that the vast majority of our kids are from Christian families," Moller wrote in an email. "Nobody is forced to participate, and we do make it known to our kids that if they have other religious preferences, we will work to help them find someone else to visit with."
Moller added that the football team now only has one chaplain who does not travel with the team to away games.
"Regardless, the per diem and travel has changed, but NOT in response to any outside criticism, simply because we have a new head coach who simply wanted to do things a little differently," Moller wrote. "We now have a single chaplain, but he no longer travels with us, and thus, gets no per diem."
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes said in a statement to CP: "As the college football season kicks off again, and programs continue to be targeted for team prayer and voluntary activities, FCA holds steadfast to the ideal that every player and coach has the right and the freedom to participate in these activities according to their individual religious convictions. We continue to commend those coaches and players who hold firm to their beliefs, both in the wins and the losses.
"Many public institutions offer the services of chaplains to those who request them. FCA's chaplains are not employees of the universities and the activities they lead are purely voluntary on the part of the players and coaches. There are no repercussions for students who decline to participate. Every student athlete has the right to participate in activities according to their religious convictions. Furthermore, students, athletes and coaches maintain their First Amendment rights, which protect their voluntary participation in religious activities and other faith-based actions."
CP did not receive responses from Virginia Tech, the University of Wisconsin or the University of South Carolina by press time.
Seidel said that legal action could be a possibility should the schools not take appropriate actions regarding their chaplaincy programs. However, it could be tough considering that it would take an athlete to stand up and speak out against his own football program.
"Again, the real problem with that is that the coaches control these athletes' lives to this enormous degree," Seidel asserted. "For an athlete to step outside of that and risk their scholarship and possibly some future career is a very, very big risk for them to take and a lot of students aren't going to be willing to do that. They will just put their head down and go along."