FFRF throws flag at UW football chaplaincy

(Photo / M.P. King, Wisconsin State Journal)

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

FFRF has been complaining to UW about its chaplaincy program for many years. In August of last year it protested again, enclosing a broader national report. However, UW has yet to issue a formal response.

Father Michael Burke, a Catholic priest, continues to serve as the UW football chaplain. For decades, Burke has travelled 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 in spite of past assurances from the university that he would pay his own way. FFRF first exposed the subsidization in the early 1990s. Burke flew with the team and was housed with the team for away games at no cost. 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.

The idea that Burke’s religious activities with the team 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 Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank. “Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation.” 

Additionally, UW has only a Roman Catholic chaplain, showing an unconstitutional preference for Christianity and for Roman Catholicism, in particular. 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 this day and age, a university should be welcoming to everyone, not making players feel they must ‘pray to play,'” adds Barker.

FFRF is requesting that Burke’s subsidies and privileges be stopped and that the UW Athletic Department cease scheduling worship services.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Madison, Wis.-based national organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with almost 24,000 nonreligious members, including more than 1,300 in Wisconsin.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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