Auburn University must put a stop to religion in its athletic programs, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is insisting, after multiple coaches promoted a religious worship event where head football coach Hugh Freeze baptized a player.
The state/church watchdog has received numerous reports that Freeze, basketball coach Bruce Pearl and baseball coach Butch Thompson were involved in promoting a religious worship service to students on Sept. 12 called “Unite Auburn.” A video promoting the event featured Thompson saying that Unite Auburn would allow students to “come together and lift the name of Jesus.” Unite Auburn “was dedicated to worship and giving messages to Auburn students seeking to grow their faith in God or who were curious about Christianity. The event’s goal was to unite the Christian community of Auburn under one roof to worship God.”
The event was organized by Tonya Prewett and her husband Chad Prewett, Auburn’s assistant men’s basketball coach. Jeremy Napier, chaplain for the Auburn men’s basketball team, was involved in planning the event and admitted that he personally baptized more than 20 students.
University-sponsored religious activities violate the U.S. Constitution, FFRF emphasizes.
“Auburn University is a public university, not a religious one. It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for university employees to use their university position to organize, promote or participate in a religious worship event,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Auburn University President Christopher B. Roberts. “These ongoing and repeated constitutional violations at the university create a coercive environment that excludes those students who don’t subscribe to the Christian views being pushed onto players by their coaches.”
This is not the first time Auburn University has prioritized religious practice over students’ rights. In 2015, FFRF published its “Pray to Play” report, in which abuses at Auburn are heavily featured. Notably, Tommy Tuberville, now a U.S. senator who is holding up Pentagon nominations to protest abortion rights, was responsible as Auburn’s overly prayerful football coach for establishing many unconstitutional religious practices in Auburn team sports. The report details how universities like Auburn have allowed their football coaches to impose their personal religious beliefs on players by hiring Christian chaplains. FFRF wrote to Auburn again in 2019 regarding football Chaplain Chette Williams, who is still employed by the university to proselytize and pray with the football team.
FFRF reminds Auburn that the Constitution’s Establishment Clause — which protects Americans’ religious freedom by ensuring the continued separation of religion and government — dictates that the government cannot in any way show favoritism toward religion. The Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment requires government neutrality between religions, and between religion and nonreligion. When a public university’s staff members sponsor and participate in religious events, it violates this constitutional requirement by clearly favoring religion over nonreligion.
Furthermore, it is unconstitutional and inappropriate for public school employees to direct students to partake in religious activities, or to participate in the religious activities of their students. Auburn’s sports programs are full of young and impressionable student athletes who would not risk giving up their scholarship, playing time or a good recommendation from their coach by speaking out or voluntarily opting out of any team religious activities — even if they strongly disagreed with his beliefs. Coaches exert great influence and power over student athletes and those athletes will follow the lead of their coaches. Using public university coaching positions to inject religion into its sports programs amounts to religious coercion.
FFRF is asking the public university to take immediate action to protect its student athletes and to ensure that coaches understand that they have been hired as coaches, not religious leaders. The coaches and assistant coaches should be educated on their constitutional duties as university employees, FFRF insists. They may not lead or encourage any religious activities in their capacity as coaches and cannot participate in any student-led religious activities.
“The abuse of power displayed by these coaches shows that Auburn hasn’t changed one bit since we published our 2015 report,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “As coaches, their responsibility lies in guidance on the field, not guiding these students to pews. They should start by firing the team chaplains, whose very presence signals that Auburn University has an inappropriate relationship with Christian evangelists.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members, including hundreds of members in Alabama. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.