FFRF protests Penn State Prayer

A similar letter was sent to University of Nebraska- Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Pearlman. To express your sentiments via email to Dr. Rodney Erickson, simply click on his name below. 

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Interim President
Penn State University
201 Old Main
University Park, PA 16802

Re: Unlawful University Sponsorship of Christian Prayer

Dear Dr. Erickson:

On behalf of the members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, complainants at State College and around the nation, I am writing to convey their and our objections to Penn State’s involvement in sponsoring an ostentatious pre-game Christian prayer at Saturday’s game. FFRF works to safeguard the constitutional principle of the separation between state and church, and to educate about nontheism. Our national organization, with more than 17,000 members across the country, includes nearly 600 Pennsylvania members and an active chapter, Nittany Freethought, in central Pennsylvania.

The inappropriate prayer spectacle on Saturday involved all coaches and their entire public university teams participating in Christian prayer in the middle of the football field with 100,000 stadium spectators and millions of television viewers. This prayer service at a public university was deeply offensive to many university students, parents, faculty, boosters and spectators.

Our membership is distressed to see a public university in the midst of a national scandal wrap itself in piety. Clearly, we need eyes wide open, not further demonstrations of blind faith and heads bowed in submission to misused authority.

Sectarian prayer endorses Christianity, excludes non-Christians and nontheists

National media reported extensively about the pre-game prayer delivered by Nebraska assistant coach Ron Brown. The coaching staffs of both teams instituted the prayer. Nebraska’s Ron Brown said in his post-game press conference that the prayers were scheduled by both schools’ Directors of Football Operations and that Penn State coach Tom Bradley “thought it would be a great idea.” The Daily Collegian also reported that Penn State assistant coach Larry Johnson informed the team they would be joining Nebraska in prayer. Coach Bradley was quoted as saying that he sought out Coach Pelini to kneel next to during the prayer. The article in the student newspaper said, “Pelini said having Brown lead the prayer was an obvious choice and that for him, signing off on it was a ‘no-brainer.’ ”

We couldn’t agree more that public university coaches arranging team prayers is a “no-brainer.” That is, the coaches failed to use theirs. Public officials and authority figures such as coaches may not use their position to impose prayer on students, team members, and sporting event audiences.

Penn State is a public research university — a land-grant university whose stated purpose is to “generate, disseminate, integrate, and apply knowledge that is valuable to society.” According to your website, it was from the outset considered an “instrumentality of the state,” that is, it carries out many of the functions of a public institution and promotes “the general welfare of the citizenry.” Penn State has no legitimate evangelical mission.

Inappropriate evangelizing on the football field

Knowing the nation’s eyes were on the game, Coach Brown, in collusion with Coach Bradley, unethically used the opportunity to promote his personal evangelical viewpoint. Brown said in his post-game press conference, “We felt like it would be appropriate to let a stadium, a city, a university, and the whole nation understand . . . the reality of the situation and that Jesus Christ was alive and wanted to heal.” From what could be heard of the pre-game prayer, Brown ended it by saying,

And may we be reminded, Lord, as it says in your word in John 1:14 that Jesus is full of grace, and truth. May the truth be known. May justice be known. Would you protect the victims that…were persecuted, Lord [inaudible]. And that Father, you would say grace and forgiveness in the lives of all of those involved. [inaudible] Thank you for the [inaudible] of Jesus Christ. Now give us a great game, a game that honors You. It’s in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Brown explained the meaning in his press conference:

I prayed to God, God, that we demonstrate manhood in this stadium by the way we played football, by our competition, by our spirit, by honoring You with the gifts of talents that you’ve given us. And may we learn what truth, the truth in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is. In John 1:14 it says Jesus is full of both, grace and truth. In other words, yes, the truth is eventually going to be revealed and hopefully justice is done, but also, all of us, the Bible says to all of us of sin and falsehood of His glory, not one of us could stand before God. He forgives us. He restores us. This community, this university, and every one of us needs restoration.

It should not be necessary to spell out why it is impermissible — and a demonstration of bad manners — for a public university serving Christians, non-Christians and nonbelievers alike to characterize a school football game as being played to honor Jesus. Given the timing and context of the game, the long-winded sermon by Brown that his god “forgives us,” no matter the “sin,” is deeply disrespectful to the victims in this far-reaching scandal. Brown downplayed the egregious nature of the allegations and cover-up by saying “every one of us needs restoration.” Far from being appropriate or “unifying,” his message of salvation through Jesus was divisive and insulting. Brown’s evangelical message is one which many players, students, faculty, parents and boosters do not subscribe to, nor should they be expected to show obeisance to his or Bradley’s personal religious views in order to take part in, attend or watch a public school sporting event.

Your statement released this weekend is troubling. You said:

On the field, the football players demonstrated a level of maturity and determination that was an inspiration. The athletes from both teams came together at midfield in unity, respect and prayer for the victims. Then they played their hearts out. It was remarkable in so many ways.

The university’s resounding support for the prayer compounds the violation. Student athletes may choose to gather privately in prayer, but a public university should not encourage or endorse religious ritual, much less inaugurate it. Whether to pray or not, whether to believe in a deity who answers prayer, is an intensely personal decision protected under our First Amendment as a paramount matter of conscience. A state school and its representatives in their official capacity may not violate the duty to remain neutral on religious matters. Penn State may not lend its power and prestige to religion, amounting to a governmental endorsement of religion that excludes the 15% of the U.S and Pennsylvania adult population that is nonreligious (American Religious Identification Survey 2008).

Prayer as part of university football games is particularly problematic when the prayers include sectarian or proselytizing devotions. It is a fundamental constitutional principle that publicly funded institutions cannot support, promote or otherwise endorse religion or engage in religious exercises. See generally Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000) (Struck down a school policy that authorized students to vote on whether to hold a prayer at high school football games); Mellen v. Bunting, 327 F.3d 355 (4th Cir. 2003)(Finding mealtime prayers at state military college to violate the Establishment Clause). Sectarian practices demonstrate the university’s apparent endorsement not only of religion over nonreligion but also of Christianity and its evangelical forms over other faiths. Penn State’s prayer sends an impermissible message to “nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.” Justice O’Connor, Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 627 (1989).

Also violated is the Pennsylvania Declaration of Rights, which guarantees that no citizen may

“be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent; no human authority can, in any case, whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishment or modes of worship.” (Religious Freedom, Art. I, Section 3)

It is no defense to call such prayers “voluntary.” Players on both teams who are nonreligious or non-Christian of course wouldn’t dare opt-out of prayers instituted by their coaches in front of millions of onlookers. Nor were they given that opportunity. Coaches exert great influence and power over student athletes and those athletes will follow the lead of their coach, should their coaches direct locker-room, pre- or post-game prayers. Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation. See, generally, Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. at 596 (“It is a tenet of the First Amendment that the State cannot require one of its citizens to forfeit his or her rights and benefits as the price of resisting conformance to state-sponsored religious practice.”); Abington Sch. Dist. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 288 (1963)(Brennan, J., concurring)(“Thus, the short, and to me sufficient, answer is that the availability of excusal or exemption simply has no relevance to the establishment question…”); Mellen v. Bunting, 327 F.3d 355, 372 (4th Cir. 2003)(“…VMI cannot avoid Establishment Clause problems by simply asserting that a cadet’s attendance at supper or his or her participation in the supper prayer are ‘voluntary.’ ”).

Those who are not impressed by constitutional dictates should perhaps open their bibles and peruse the Sermon on the Mount, which attributes to Jesus these words condemning public spectacles of prayer as rank hypocrisy (Matthew 6:5-6):

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

Penn State must take immediate action to stop any further involvement, endorsement, encouragement or scheduling of prayers at university functions and sporting events. Coaches are representatives of the school and may not organize, lead, or direct their student athletes to pray. We request that you take immediate steps to ensure no replay of Saturday’s university-fostered sermonizing. May we hear from you about this matter at your earliest convenience?

Very truly,

Annie Laurie Gaylor, for
FREEDOM FROM RELIGION FOUNDATION

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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