Football Prayers Clearly Impermissible by Michael Hakeem (March 1994)

The following is a letter from Michael Hakeem, Foundation Executive Council member and UW professor emeritus (sociology), to the chancellor over the policy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison to permit a Catholic priest to travel with and pray over student football players.

Dear Chancellor Ward:

As one who has had a long-time commitment to the principle of the separation of state and church, I have followed with interest the news stories about the Reverend Michael Burke’s relationship to the football team.

I have always taken the position that the University ought to serve as an exemplar of adherence to that principle by complying not only with the letter but also with the spirit of it. Rather than raising all sorts of defenses that depend on legalistic technicalities as to whether it is going over the line in the matter, the University ought to bend over backwards to avoid the slightest appearance of church/state conflict.

I think Father Burke’s acting in the role of what is widely called and understood to be “chaplain” to the football team–the press regularly refers to him as such–violates the principle of church/state separation. It is contended that he has not been officially appointed as such. But he is widely considered as such, and what appears real to people is real in their minds. Appearances are often as powerful as reality. How many people would know that this priest was not sought out and officially hired–and even compensated–by the University as chaplain? Appearances!

News articles have quoted Athletic Director Pat Richter as saying “Under no circumstances can his relationship be characterized as a chaplain for the team.” All this shows is that Richter does not know what is meant by “chaplain.” Burke himself says that he is “someone that a lot of players, coaches, and staff come to for guidance,” that they confide in him, and that members of the team “talk with me about some personal problem and I’m always pleased to be able to do that.” Burke fulfills exactly the role of a chaplain.

Burke says, “The religion thing doesn’t really have a lot to do with it.” So, it does have something to do with it. He, in fact, admits, in a news article in the Wisconsin State Journal for January 29, that “members of the team have asked me to pray for them.” I think Father Burke is being disingenuous when he minimizes the “religion thing.” It should be possible to persuade even Richter that a priest can no more stay away from religion than a cat can stay away from milk. How little can Burke stay away from religion is beautifully illustrated by his appearance just a few days ago at a birthday party for Representative Scott Klug. On that occasion, he prayed: “God, You said to ask You if we ever need anything. Help all of us to re-elect Scott Klug to Congress. Amen.” If he can fall into his religious mode that easily at a political event, only a naive person can think he stays away from religion in his ministrations to the football players. In fact, his faith requires its clergy to take every opportunity to foster it. If Burke doesn’t do so, then he is in violation of his calling.

Once again, the athletic officials demonstrate that they are in, but not of, the University. If they think the football players need counseling and guidance, why didn’t they contact the University’s outstanding Department of Psychology, the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine, and the School of Social Work for advice and for references to professionally qualified, secular counselors instead of depending on a priest who happened to strike up an acquaintance with them?

Another troublesome issue is the choice of the Holy Name Seminary locale for practice. With all the nonreligious alternatives that must be available for such a purpose, why does the University insist on creating the impression that it seeks to defy rather than support the principle of church/state separation?

I think in the athletic department’s failure to dissociate itself from Father Burke, the University is turning its back on an opportunity to demonstrate its adherence to the principle of church/state separation, to set an example for other state agencies and departments, and to teach the public the importance of it.

Michael Hakeem
Professor Emeritus

Freedom From Religion Foundation