Coach Rick Barnes unconstitutionally infuses Christianity in UT’s basketball program

University of Tennessee head basketball coach Rick Barnes is unconstitutionally proselytizing students, alleges the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

FFRF recently received a flood of complaints regarding Barnes after a Feb. 4 local television news piece described how he has been using his position as head coach to promote and endorse his religious views to student athletes. Barnes was quoted as saying that when he became head coach, he wanted to do two things: “win games and have an impact on the spiritual side of the program.” He went on to state, “I think if you can plant a seed so that somebody comes to know Jesus Christ then it’s the greatest victory of all.” The article explained that Barnes teamed up with Chris Walker, the campus director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, in order to help bring Christianity into the university’s basketball program. Together they established “power talks” — talks done before games that “focus on faith.” One of these “power talks” even led some players on the team to get Christian tattoos. 

Barnes has also taken his players to church, including a visit with the team to watch as two team members were baptized. He described these baptisms as “far more important than any win we’ve ever had.” And he further elaborated, “I want every one of these players to have a chance to know Jesus Christ. It’s the greatest thing we can do for them.”

FFRF released a report in 2015 entitled, "Pray to Play," calling out more than 25 public universities for letting football coaches impose their personal religion on players via chaplaincy programs. The University of Tennessee was one of the institutions spotlighted in the report. Arian Foster, a former pro football player and outspoken atheist who played for the University of Tennessee, explained in an interview in 2015 that “the separation of church and football — not to mention church and public education — blurred at Tennessee.” Foster could not escape coach-imposed religion at the university, and when he asked to follow his own beliefs, he was deemed a conceited nonconformist.

The U.S. Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored proselytizing in public schools as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, FFRF reminds the University of Tennessee.

“In Mellen v. Bunting, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals extended the scope of the aforementioned cases from primary and secondary schools to college-aged students when institutional circumstances create a coercive religious environment,” FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line informs University of Tennessee Interim Chancellor Wayne T. Davis. “The court found that mealtime prayer at a state military college (VMI) was an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause, given the coercive atmosphere.”

The university’s authority over student athletes is similar to that of VMI in that much of the players’ conduct is closely monitored, directed and critiqued by coaching staff. Players trying to please their coach or to curry favor surely will feel immense pressure to participate in religious activities and go along with Barnes, contends FFRF. And it isn’t a defense to call these religious activities “voluntary,” since courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation.

Coaches exert great influence and power over student athletes and those athletes will follow the lead of their coach. Using a coaching position to promote Christianity amounts to religious coercion, FFRF points out.

Plus, the University of Tennessee is alienating a significant proportion of its students through the religious actions of its head basketball coach. A governmental endorsement of religion excludes the almost one-fourth of the American population that is nonreligious, including 38 percent of young Americans.

The University of Tennessee must take action to protect its student athletes and to ensure that Barnes understands that he has been hired as a basketball coach — not as a pastor.

“Rick Barnes is misusing his power and prestige,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Students should not be pressured to pray to play. Some of his players are even having Christian tattoos carved in their bodies — and that is not in keeping with the role Barnes is supposed to play at a secular institution.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit nontheistic organization dedicated to state/church separation with more than 31,000 members and chapters across the country, including members in Tennessee and a local chapter, FFRF East Tennessee.

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.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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