FFRF objects to university football team chaplaincies: By PJ Slinger

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is renewing its objection to several public university football chaplaincies.

FFRF initially contacted the schools in August of last year to complain about their respective chaplaincy programs as part of a broad national report titled “Pray to Play.”

This August, FFRF contacted five major universities still not in compliance with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Those schools are Georgia Tech, the University of Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, the University of Missouri and the University of South Carolina. FFRF plans to contact more noncompliant universities throughout the fall.

Most of the schools involved try to get around the unconstitutionality argument by claiming that any religious services or activities are purely voluntary. But the idea that such religious activities are truly optional is questionable, at best.

FFRF’s “Pray to Play” report concluded that “athletes do not view coaches’ suggestions as optional.” Moreover, “coaches add to this pressure by sending chaplains to talk with players going through difficult times, instead of allowing players to seek out their own religious or professional counseling.”

“Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation,” FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote in a letter to Georgia Tech President G.P. Peterson.

Additionally, these schools employ only Christian chaplains, showing an unconstitutional preference for Christianity. This is in spite of the fact that 44 percent of college-aged Americans are non-Christian and fully a third of millennials identify as nonreligious, according to the Pew Research Center.

In order to aid these universities in protecting their students from religious discrimination, FFRF is also recommending the adoption of a model policy, which includes the maintenance of complete official neutrality in matters of religion. If adopted, this model policy would not only bring the schools into compliance with the law, but would send the message that the universities value the right of every student athlete to hold his or her own religious or nonreligious views, free from direct or indirect coercion or contrary endorsement.

Georgia Tech

At Georgia Tech, it appears that Derrick Moore continues to serve as its football chaplain and receives compensation from the school for his religious services. Moore prays with the team before games while wielding a sledgehammer at times.
“Apparently, we need to sledgehammer Georgia Tech officials in order to get any meaningful response,” Barker adds.


The University of Missouri last year quickly replied to FFRF’s letter, stating that it had no intention to change its program.

As with the other schools, it contended that Mizzou’s football chaplaincy is acceptable because it is voluntary. Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin wrote that “interaction with the chaplain and attendance at these services is strictly voluntary.” But former coach Gary Pinkel invited a chaplain to deliver prayers for the whole team in the locker room.

Also, chaplains Shay Roush and Nathan Tiemeyer are not uncompensated or purely “volunteer.” As FFRF’s report details, both have received per diem payments for their services, as well as Mizzou-sponsored flights for themselves and their families to bowl games. Such benefits send a clear message to players and the community that these chaplains are working for Mizzou.

South Carolina

FFRF is pleased to report the departure of Chaplain Adrian Despres, about whom it complained last year.

However, it appears that the new University of South Carolina football head coach, Will Muschamp, has decided that he wants “multiple voices available to assist with the spiritual development of student-athletes,” as he was quoted in an official statement on Despres’ exit. Furthermore, he told a Rotary Club meeting earlier this year, “There’s no question being a Christian is very important to me. . . . That’s not something I push on our players. It’s something I make readily available for our players.”

As an initial matter, it is improper for a public university program to “assist with the spiritual development” of students. This cannot be a task of the government under the First Amendment, which excludes government entities from sponsoring religious activity. Whether or not to engage in religious activity is squarely left to private individuals.

Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech’s Director of Athletics Whit Babcock’s response to our letter, dated Oct. 15, 2015, indicated that Virginia Tech has taken positive steps regarding its chaplain, but that the program continues.

Following FFRF’s exposé, money was repaid to the university after team Chaplain Dave Gittings and his family traveled with the team and stayed in team hotels, received per diem payments for bowl games, and received complimentary season tickets.
However, Virginia Tech appears to have retained its chaplaincy program as a whole. Gittings continues to serve as the team chaplain, and he apparently provides “weekly large group meetings open to the student athletes, small group team bible studies, one on one discipleship, coaches bible studies and a ministry to the ladies who love and support the coach called Behind The Bench.”

According to Virginia Tech’s Gobbler Connect Organizations Directory, there are more than 60 religious organizations for students to choose from. There is no need for the Virginia Tech football program to provide Christian chaplains in order for the student-athletes to freely exercise their religions.


FFRF has been badgering the University of Wisconsin about its chaplaincy program for many years, however, it has yet to issue a formal response to FFRF’s newest concerns.
Father Michael Burke, a Catholic priest, continues to serve as the UW football chaplain. For decades, Burke has traveled with the team, led team prayers and provided religious services, among other chaplain duties. He has access to team facilities and has even participated in recruiting.

Burke has a history of leading the team in pregame prayers. These prayers are coercive. A former Jewish player told a reporter that he had to opt to sit with the group while it was praying and listen silently so as to not appear socially out of place.

FFRF is particularly concerned that the UW football program has been subsidizing Burke’s travel with the team. FFRF first exposed the subsidization in the early 1990s. Recent public records that FFRF requested revealed that in the past couple of years UW again paid for Burke’s hotel rooms for bowl games, which totaled nearly $2,500. Following FFRF’s request for records of Burke’s reimbursement, UW belatedly submitted an invoice to Burke for such travel.

Freedom From Religion Foundation