FFRF’s ‘Pray to Play’ expose still making waves, pushing schools in right direction

Virginia Tech is no longer giving preferred access to the school’s football bowl games to religious advisers following the “Pray to Play” exposé by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. For the first time, Virginia Tech has received reimbursements from all 2014 bowl game expenses incurred by chaplains.

FFRF, a national state/church watchdog with more than 23,000 members, issued a report in mid-August condemning more than 25 public universities for allowing football coaches to impose their personal religion on players by hiring Christian chaplains. The 25-page report is the result of more than a year of investigation, scrutinizing hundreds of university documents and records.

Whit Babcock, Virginia Tech’s director of athletics, wrote FFRF to explain that “in prior years preferred access to bowl games, et cetera may have been given to religious advisers. However, we have stopped this practice and all 2014 bowl expenses have been reimbursed.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, one of the lead authors on the report, said of the move: “It’s a step in the right direction. Curbing access and funding is a necessary move and we’re happy to see some universities taking their constitutional responsibilities to students seriously.”

In a separate but related action, Jerry Coyne, the noted biologist, author and honorary FFRF board member, wrote a letter to his colleagues in the biology department at the University of South Carolina regarding Adrian Despres, the chaplain of the South Carolina Gamecocks football team, after reading FFRF’s “Pray to Play” report. Despres, the report notes, regularly preaches creationism and even claims to have debated some of the top experts in the field. Coyne searched for the debates Despres claims to have participated in and concludes that his claim is “simply untrue.”

“Despres is simultaneously undercutting the teaching of evolution at USC by questioning evolution and promoting creationism in public, and is also doing so as an official representative of your university,” Coyne wrote. “This is, then, a twofold violation of the legal requirement that government officials not use their position to promote a particular faith (Christianity in his case).” 

During the 2014 football season, Despres was paid $4,500 as a “character coach” to counsel players and speak to recruits. However, he functions as the team chaplain, as former head coach Steve Spurrier has called him “preacher” or “reverend.” Spurrier, who surprised many by retiring in the middle of the season, had specifically said: “That’s what he is, he’s a preacher… He preaches the Word – the gospel … what we all need to hear.”

FFRF Co-President Dan Barker called chaplaincies and de facto chaplaincies at public universities “a serious violation of the Establishment Clause and of student rights of conscience.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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