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Lauryn Seering

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(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.

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At the start of football season, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is renewing its objection to the University of Missouri's football chaplaincy.

FFRF initially contacted Mizzou in August of last year to complain about its chaplaincy program, enclosing a broader national report. The university quickly replied, stating that it had no intention to change its program. 

The university's response contended that Mizzou's football chaplaincy is acceptable because it is voluntary. The chaplaincy includes "access to a volunteer chaplain, including purely optional, non-denominational religious services during the pre-game itinerary," then-Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin wrote. He emphasized that "interaction with the chaplain and attendance at these services is strictly voluntary." Loftin also claimed that the program is based upon "the traditional desire of many of its student-athletes for access to those services."

But these arguments don't hold water.

First, Chaplains Shay Roush and Nathan Tiemeyer are not uncompensated or purely "volunteer." As FFRF's report details, both have received per diem payments for their services, as well as Mizzou-sponsored flights for themselves and their families to bowl games. Such benefits send a clear message to players and the community that these chaplains are working for Mizzou.

Second, the idea that such religious activities are truly optional is questionable, at best. Former coach Gary Pinkel had Roush deliver prayers for the whole team in the locker room. 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 Missouri Interim Chancellor Henry C. Foley. "Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation."

Additionally, Mizzou has only Christian chaplains, showing an unconstitutional preference for Christianity. 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 order to aid the university in protecting its students from religious discrimination, FFRF is also recommending the adoption of a model policy, which includes the maintenance of complete official neutrality in matters of religion. If adopted, this model policy would not only bring the university into compliance with the law but it would send the message that Mizzou values the rights of every student athlete to hold his or her own religious or nonreligious views, free from direct or indirect coercion or contrary endorsement.

""In this day and age, a university should be welcoming to everyone, not making players feel they must 'pray to play,'" adds Barker.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with almost 24,000 members nationally, including nearly 300 in Missouri.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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