FFRF calls penalty on Gamecocks’ football chaplaincy

At the start of football season, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is renewing its objection to the University of South Carolina’s football chaplaincy.

FFRF initially contacted the university in August of last year to complain about its chaplaincy program, enclosing a broader national report. FFRF is pleased to learn of the departure of Chaplain Adrian Despres, about whom it complained. 

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.”

The university’s chaplaincy program remains unconstitutional.

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.

Despite Muschamp’s claim that he does not “push” Christianity on his players, the idea that chaplain-led religious services are truly optional is questionable at best. FFRF’s 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.”

“Even if the chaplaincy were strictly voluntary, that fact does not alter the unconstitutionality of the practice,” FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor write in a letter to University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides. “Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation.” 

Additionally, the University of South Carolina has only a Christian chaplain, 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 the university in protecting its 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 university into compliance with the law but it would send the message that the University of South Carolina values the rights of every student athlete to hold his or her own religious or nonreligious views, free from direct or indirect coercion or contrary endorsement.

“In this day and age, the university should be welcoming to everyone, not making players feel they must ‘pray to play,'” adds Gaylor.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with almost 24,000 nonreligious members across the country, including nearly 200 in South Carolina.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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