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Pray to Play report riles up Ala.; legislature proposes unconstitutional law to protect chaplains

We at the Freedom From Religion Foundation are flattered. Alabama Rep. Ford has authored a new, misguided bill that attempts to authorize football team chaplains at public universities. His bill is a direct response to the FFRF’s report, “Pray to Play: How Christian coaches and chaplains are converting football fields into mission fields.” The bill is even named after one of the illegally employed chaplains FFRF’s report focused on, Auburn chaplain Chette Williams.

Apparently, Chette has not been praying hard enough to his particular deity, Auburn has lost its last two games and fallen out of the top 25. Auburn was absolutely trounced by LSU two weeks ago, losing 45-21. And the week before that they barely eked out a win over Jacksonville State. Then again, maybe Chette’s god started listening to reason. As NFL star running back Arian Foster recently put it, “If there is a God and he’s watching football, there are so many other things he could be doing. There are hungry children and diseases and famine and so much important stuff going on in the world, and [god]’s really blessed your team? It’s just weird to me.” Or maybe Auburn should be working on fundamentals and not prayers, after all, nothing fails like prayer.

But back to Ford’s new bill. Recognizing the illegality of these chaplains and the strength of FFRF’s report, Ford is attempting to change the law. But other than using the legislature’s power to remove the chaplains at Alabama public universities, which the legislature theoretically could do, he doesn’t have the power to fix this violation by changing the law. He cannot change the Constitution.

Contrary to Rep. Ford’s understanding, football chaplains are not employed to accommodate players’ religion, but to impose religion. Public universities already accommodate students’ religion through countless religious student groups and worship sites. Sports chaplains are unnecessary and unconstitutional.Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 11.50.43 AM

As our report points out, 44% of college-aged Americans are not Christian. Even in the South, 39% of college-aged Americans are not Christian. Yet 100% of the football chaplains we investigated promote Christianity exclusively. The chaplaincies are not about student athletes’ religion, but about imposing the coach’s religion upon vulnerable students. Our report quotes, extensively, coaches and chaplains that have said as much.

Rep. Ford argues that numerous private organizations—fraternities, civic clubs, etc.—have chaplains. But the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which separates state and church, applies to the government, not private entities. The military has chaplains—though the Father of the Constitution, James Madison, thought them unconstitutional—because courts have said that the military may accommodate service members in distant countries who cannot worship as they desire. But again, universities already accommodate students’ religious preferences.

It may seem odd to call a 6’5” 250-lb linebacker vulnerable, but he is. Coaches control players’ playing time, scholarships, education, schedules, their finances to a certain extent, and their futures. Students in this situation are, to borrow the words of one federal court, “uniquely susceptible to coercion.” Coaches and players often develop a father-son-like relationship. But that relationship means coaches need to tread even more carefully when it comes to students’ rights of conscience. It should not be used as a license to convert the trusting student athlete to the coach’s religion.

Because of this pressure, Ford is wrong to say, “students are always free to choose not to participate in religious activities.” A perfect example of this coercion was related by the atheist student athlete interviewed by FFRF for the report. The coach asked him to lead the team in a prayer and, even though he was an atheist, he agreed. He violated his own beliefs because the coach asked him to—that is the power coaches hold over players.

Instead of protecting students—the vulnerable population—Rep. Ford is seeking to let those with power impose their personal religion on that vulnerable population. He is seeking to give proselytizing at a state university a state sanction. Fortunately, no state law can trump state or federal constitutions. This bill does nothing to protect the Alabama or U.S. Constitution, universities, or students—it only gives misinformed coaches the impression that they can legally force religion onto their players. They can’t.

The state legislature may not impose religion on students at any state-supported school, much less authorize schools to hire chaplains.

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