Atheist activists go after football chaplains at public universities

Posted September 21

With football season heating up, atheist activists are once again taking aim at chaplaincy programs, urging public universities to abandon them.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia, is among the colleges that the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an activist group based in Wisconsin, is targeting with warnings about alleged constitutional violations.

The atheist group has been urging the public university to abandon its chaplaincy program since last year, arguing that it violates federal law. In a letter dated Sept. 2, activists warned university president Timothy Sands that he risks "legal liability" by allowing the chaplaincy program to continue.

"The current policies at Virginia Tech fail to properly protect your student athletes' rights of conscience and pose a high degree of risk of discrimination," it reads.

This letter follows an earlier complaint waged by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in August 2015; afterward, the university reportedly took some steps that the group heralded.

This included getting some money back after the team chaplain reportedly stayed in team hotels, received per diem payments and season tickets. But since the chaplaincy program continues, the atheist group is once again speaking out.

According to a statement on the matter, the Freedom From Religion Foundation said Virginia Tech has just one Christian chaplain, which the organization believes shows an illegal "preference for Christianity."

"The university's chaplaincy program remains unconstitutional," proclaims a statement from the organization.

The group said it is problematic to have religious programs for football teams — even if these efforts are voluntary — as many athletes will feel compelled or forced to take part due to the nature of their relationships with coaches.

And Virginia Tech isn't the only school on the organization's list this year, with the University of Wisconsin also receiving a similar complaint letter — a grievance that the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been airing for "many years," according to a statement.

The organization said that a Catholic priest has served as team chaplain for decades, traveling with players, leading prayers and conducting other duties.

"He has access to team facilities and has even participated in recruiting," the organization said. "(He) has a history of leading the team in pregame prayers. These prayers are coercive."

In addition to Virginia Tech and the University of Wisconsin, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is also targeting chaplaincy programs at the University of South Carolina, the University of Missouri and Georgia Tech, according to statements on the organization's website.

"In this day and age, a university should be welcoming to everyone, not making players feel they must 'pray to play,'" Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Dan Barker said in a statement.

The organization ramped up its efforts against chaplains in 2015 with the issuance of a sweeping report targeting 25 public universities' chaplaincy programs.

That report, titled "Pray to Play," accused public institutions of improperly doling out money and services to chaplains in the form of free games, pay and allowing them to help with recruiting, among other alleged entanglements.

The report charged that "student athletes are uniquely susceptible to coercion from coaches," and that these students will listen to whatever a coach asks due to "educational, financial and career reasons."

"The report highlights the unique player-coach relationship and the coercive power that college football coaches wield when it comes to religion," reads an executive summary. "Coaches control scholarships, playing time and prospects for future careers."

But as The Christian Post noted, colleges don't seem to be particularly moved by these claims and warnings, with some saying that they simply view the chaplaincy as a voluntary program offered to student athletes who wish to take part.

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