Pray to Play exposé riles up Ala. Legislature

Alabama State Rep. Craig Ford has proposed a new bill seeking to authorize football team chaplains at state public universities. The bill is a direct response to the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s report, “Pray to Play: How Christian coaches and chaplains are converting football fields into mission fields.” The bill, which has no co-sponsors, is in the House Education Policy Committee. FFRF’s exposé in part documented unconstitutional Christian chaplaincies embedded in public university football programs, including Auburn University. FFRF sent Auburn an open records request in September 2014, along with a $500 requested deposit that December.

The university has refused to provide any records, but FFRF’s independent research shows that Chette Williams, Auburn’s football chaplain, is treated as a part of the team. Williams has an office in the stadium complex, typically wears AU-branded clothing, organizes religious revivals for the team, is regularly referred to by official or official-sounding names, leads the team in prayer, baptizes players, randomly attends other team practices and meetings, travels with the team, and much more, even though technically the university does not employ him. 

Former head coach Tommy Tuberville appointed Williams in 1999, one of his “first moves” as head coach, claiming the team experienced a “tremendous spiritual revival . . . moved on the Auburn team since his arrival. . . . Players are getting baptized, carrying around Bibles and wearing wooden cross necklaces.” Williams brags about baptizing players. 

Ford’s bill is based “on a common misunderstanding, the idea that football chaplains are employed to accommodate players’ religion, rather than to impose religion on those players,” noted the report’s principal author Andrew Seidel, an attorney for FFRF. “Public universities already accommodate students’ religion through countless religious student groups and worship sites. Sports chaplains are unnecessary and unconstitutional.” 

FFRF notes that coaches control athletes’ playing time, scholarships, education, schedules, their finances to a certain extent and their futures. Students in this situation are uniquely susceptible to coercion. Ford is wrong to say, “Students are always free to choose not to participate in religious activities,” Seidel said. 

A good example of this coercion was related by an atheist student athlete interviewed by FFRF for the report. The coach asked him to lead the team in a prayer, and he felt compelled to do so, for fear of outing himself, displeasing the coach and facing public embarrassment and reprisal. Instead of protecting students, Ford’s bill would permit coaches to impose their personal religion on a vulnerable population. 

Fortunately, no state law can trump the state or federal constitutions. The legislature may not impose religion on students at any state-supported school, much less authorize schools to hire chaplains. This bill does nothing to protect the Constitution, universities or students and is self-serving pandering.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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