The Freedom From Religion Foundation has asked University of Wisconsin football coach Barry Alvarez to end his team's "chaplain" arrangement with a Catholic priest. The Foundation has asked that Rev. Michael Burke no longer be allowed to accompany the football team as its "chaplain," ofÞcial or de facto.
Burke is referred to by athletic department employees as the team's chaplain and ßew with the team to the Rose Bowl, also accompanying them to a celebration after their Rose Bowl victory in Milwaukee with Vice-President Al Gore. A recent Wisconsin State Journal article identiÞed Burke as the team's chaplain, and staff members at the Athletic Department and the football division conÞrmed that he is "the Badger chaplain."
"The University of Wisconsin-Madison is a secular institution," said Anne Nicol Gaylor, Foundation president. "This is not Notre Dame!" Alvarez, a Catholic, was recruited several years ago from a position at Notre Dame.
Following a similar Foundation complaint in 1985, the Wisconsin's Attorney General at the time, Bronson LaFollette, issued a formal opinion in May, 1986, ending an unconstitutional practice by former football coach David McClain of telling players to kneel, and leading them in pre-game prayers.
"Now we apparently have a football team chaplain, surreptitiously anointed," Gaylor said. The Foundation has requested information from the University's accounting department, yet to be answered as of publication time, including:
The Foundation has asked University of Wisconsin Chancellor David Ward for an investigation, and to sever the inappropriate arrangement.
Wisconsin Director of Athletics Pat Richter, on January 27, issued a "clariÞcation on Burke's role." Although his Department had identiÞed Burke as the Badger chaplain in a phone inquiry from Freethought Today on January 25, in this release Richter wrote:
"Burke's role with the football players and staff is that of supporter and friend. Under no circumstances can his relationship be characterized as a 'chaplain for the team.' "
Richter revealed that the priest "has volunteered to be available for personal guidance and counseling for the past 17 years."
He added: "At the request of the last Þve head football coaches at the UW, Burke has accompanied the Wisconsin football team on road trips." He said the priest's expenses are covered by the Mendota Gridiron Club, which he described as "the school's football fundraising organization."
To other media, Richter pledged that "Burke will continue to be invited to be part of the football program in his informal role as counselor and supporter."
No figures or documentation of the UW's claims were available at press-time.
"Prayers were unheard of at sporting events in Wisconsin until the last couple decades. It seems incredible that a secular University would countenance them in any form, but especially ludicrous in connection with football games!" Gaylor said.
An inkling of the caliber of Burke's "counseling" to football players may be gleaned from a report of his prayers by the Wisconsin State Journal on January 23. Pat Simms reported that Burke was invited to pray at a recent fundraising birthday party for Republican Congressman Scott Klug, and intoned: "God, you said to ask You if we ever need anything. Help all of us to re-elect Scott Klug to Congress. Amen."