Univ. of South Carolina coach’s sectarian remarks indefensible, FFRF says

screenshot of a social media post by dawnstaley praising God

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is calling constitutional misconduct on University of South Carolina basketball head coach Dawn Staley for her recent comments denigrating nonbelievers.

In her conversation with ESPN reporter Holly Rowe courtside Sunday following her team’s victory over Oregon State, Staley said that there is something “wrong” with those who don’t believe in God: “If you don’t believe in God, something is wrong with you. Seriously!”

Staley has also continued her practice of preparing “gameday devotional” for players and sharing these chosen bible verses on her social media pages as “Head Coach of South Carolina Women’s Basketball.” This is inappropriate for a number of reasons, including the fact that her X account is directly linked to the South Carolina Women’s Basketball account. She continues to describe each game as “Jesus versus” whoever the team’s opponent is, creating a Christian environment within the basketball program that excludes non-Christian and nonreligious players.

Non-Christian and nonreligious players should feel welcome and respected as part of the women’s basketball team, FFRF emphasizes, not be told by their coach that they are on a team that is representing Jesus and that “if you don’t believe in God, something is wrong with you.”

“The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored proselytizing in public schools,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to University of South Carolina President Michael Amiridis. “In all of these cases, the federal courts have struck down school prayers because it constitutes a government advancement and endorsement of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

In Mellen v. Bunting, FFRF adds, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over South Carolina, extended the scope of these cases from primary and secondary schools to college-aged students when institutional circumstances create a coercive religious environment. Coaches exert great influence and power over student athletes and those athletes will follow the lead of their coach, FFRF points out. This is especially true for powerhouse programs like the University of South Carolina’s women’s basketball team. Using a coaching position, especially one of this stature, to promote Christianity amounts to religious coercion.

The University of South Carolina should not lend its power and prestige to religion, since it recognizes that its “campus community can truly thrive only when those of all backgrounds and experiences are welcomed and respected,” according to its own language. A full 37 percent of the American population is non-Christian, including the almost 30 percent who are nonreligious. A recent survey reveals that almost half of Gen Z qualify as “Nones” (religiously unaffiliated). Staley’s religious activities and denigrating comments alienate and exclude a significant portion of University of South Carolina students.

FFRF has written to the university a number of times previously about Staley’s ostentatious religiosity, but she has only ramped it up. The University of South Carolina must take action to protect its student athletes and to ensure that Staley understands that she has been hired as a basketball coach and not as a pastor, FFRF insists.

“Coach Staley is coercing her students to adopt religion even beyond the ‘pray to play’ notion,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Her insults to all those who don’t believe in her particular religion cannot be countenanced by a public university.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members across the country, including hundreds of members in South Carolina. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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