First Liberty Institute shows speciousness in attack on Univ. of Colorado

Deion Sanders

A Christian Right outfit is displaying illogical reasoning in a controversy involving University of Colorado coach Deion Sanders.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote the University of Colorado on Jan. 24 raising serious concerns about its new football coach engaging in prayer with staff members and students. FFRF reminded the public university that while Sanders is free to worship as he wishes on his own time, engaging in religious worship with students and staff members as part of his official duties as an employee of the University of Colorado is inappropriate and violates the constitutional rights of students and other staff members. Students are entitled to religious liberty and should not be faced with the dilemma of participating in Coach Sanders’ religious activities against their freedom of conscience, or risk damaging their relationship with the coach by opting out.

To its great credit, the university understood its obligations to the First Amendment rights of students, and personally met with Sanders to provide guidance on the nondiscrimination policies, including guidance on the boundaries in which players and coaches may and may not engage in religious expression. The university took appropriate action to ensure that Sanders can exercise his personal religion in ways that do not infringe upon the constitutional rights of students. This outcome was a win for the University of Colorado, Coach Sanders, students — and for the Constitution.

First Liberty, a Christian nationalist legal group, has now reportedly written a letter to the University of Colorado claiming that by balancing the religious freedom rights of all parties, the University has “unconstitutionally censored” Sanders:

Coach Sanders does not lose his constitutional right to free exercise of religion simply because he is an employee at CU. “Yet, giving guidance on the boundaries in which players and coaches may and may not engage in religious expression,” presents a risk of state-sponsored censorship of Coach Sanders’ private speech.

While First Liberty is correct that Sanders does not lose his right to free exercise of religion simply because he is a public university employee, it is incorrect in suggesting that he can use his position to influence or coerce students into religious exercise. When acting as an employee of the university, Coach Sanders is not engaging in “private speech.” Nor is it “private speech” when Sanders as coach began team events with prayer, thereby exerting his authority over a captive audience of students and staff.

First Liberty irresponsibly claims that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District allows Coach Sanders to impose religious exercise on staff members and students, but this is incorrect. While the Supreme Court held in that case that a high school football coach’s silent, private post-game prayer was constitutional, the Court repeatedly stressed throughout its opinion that the coach silently prayed alone. Here, rather than praying privately, Sanders is initiating prayers at staff meetings and team events, coercing his team into engaging in religious exercise. While players may technically choose not to participate in prayers or religious rituals with the coach and the team, no player should be put in the position of feeling pressured to participate in religious exercise to please their coach or be seen as part of the team.

Sanders’ team is full of young and impressionable student athletes who, even if they strongly disagreed with his beliefs, would be reluctant to risk their scholarships or playing time, or losing a good recommendation from the coach by speaking out or voluntarily opting out of unconstitutional religious activities.

True religious freedom requires a strong separation between church and state. No student should be or feel compelled to engage in prayer or religious exercise in order to play on a public university’s football team. Directing Sanders not to engage in religious exercise while officially acting as a public school football coach protects students’ religious freedom rights while doing no harm to his rights. The University of Colorado understands this; it’s a shame that First Liberty Institute never will.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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