Atheists hoping to sack football chaplains

by Gregory Tomlin |

(Auburn University/FCA)Chette Williams, an unofficial chaplain with Auburn Univeristy, prays with football players after a game. The Freedom from Religion Foundation says allowing paid and volunteer chaplains access to players is a violation of the First Amendment.

NEW YORK (Christian Examiner) – The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation has fired off a handful of threatening letters to universities demanding each one sack its "football chaplain."

The letters to Auburn University, Georgia Tech, University of Georgia and University of South Carolina come after the atheist group – which has a long history of litigation –issued a 25-page report titled "Pray to Play" on the alleged abuses of Christian football chaplains at NCAA schools.

According to FFRF, it conducted a year-long investigation into the activities of the chaplains and determined that all of the chaplains investigated "are promoting Christianity, usually with an evangelical bent."

"These chaplains preach religious doctrine, including apparently creationism, to the athletes. Some universities, like Missouri, paid for chaplains and their wives and children to attend bowl games. Other universities paid chaplains for their services, including the University of South Carolina, which has a policy prohibiting such payments. Other universities, such as Auburn, give chaplains offices in the stadium. Chaplains were also involved in recruiting prospective athletes, raising the possibility of violating NCCA regulations," FFRF said in a news release.

The group also reportedly interviewed atheists players who felt religion had been imposed on them while playing college football.

The letters sent to the universities in question are substantially similar, but each contains information specific to the chaplain working with the school's football program.

For example, according to the letter sent to University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides, FFRF claims "Adrian Despres preaches creationism, distorts his debating experience, proselytizes public university students and is paid by that public school—the University of South Carolina—to preach and recruit new football players. During the 2014 football season, Despres was paid $4,500 as a 'character coach' to counsel players and speak to recruits."

These chaplains preach religious doctrine, including apparently creationism, to the athletes. Some universities, like Missouri, paid for chaplains and their wives and children to attend bowl games. Other universities paid chaplains for their services, including the University of South Carolina, which has a policy prohibiting such payments. Other universities, such as Auburn, give chaplains offices in the stadium. Chaplains were also involved in recruiting prospective athletes, raising the possibility of violating NCCA regulations.
- Freedom from Religion Foundation

"In truth, he functions as the team chaplain," says FFRF. "Head coach Steve Spurrier calls him 'Preacher' or 'Reverend.' Spurrier has specifically said: 'That's what he is, he's a preacher... He preaches the Word – the gospel ... what we all need to hear.' Despres preached a series of sermons called 'Christian Man Laws' to players, teaching them to 'stop being sissies for Christ.'"

The group's statement on Auburn University claimed the chaplain there, Chette Williams, had baptized players, led Bible studies and created a sense of spiritual revival on the team.

According to FFR, former head coach Tommy Tuberville appointed Williams in 1999. Williams has reportedly claimed he baptized 20 players in 10 years, but FFRF said the number could be closer to 50. FFRF's co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, lamented the baptisms as forced, claiming the players were "put in the position of feeling they have to pray to play."

Auburn University issued a brief statement defending the chaplain:

"Chaplains are common in many public institutions, including the US Congress. The football team chaplain isn't an Auburn employee, and participation in activities he leads are voluntary."

The letters sent to the universities today are not the group's first. FFRF sent a similarly-worded letter to Clemson University in April 2014, demanding that Chaplain James Trapp be removed. Clemson responded with a formal letter asserting FFRF had "misconstrued important facts and made incorrect statements of law."

In the group's report, which also specifically mentions the Fellowship of Christian Athletes as violating what FFRF perceives as the law, there is no description of the legal case FFRF makes for prohibiting the use of football chaplains. However, in Marsh v. Chambers in 1983, the Supreme Court ruled the employment of chaplains within the government entities was not a violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause.

Other universities which have been or are being notified by FFRF of their supposed violations of the First Amendment in having a football chaplain include the University of Alabama, Mississippi State University, University of Tennessee, Louisiana State University, University of Missouri, University of Washington, University of Illinois, Florida State University, University of Mississippi, and the University of Wisconsin.

With the exception of Washington, Wisconsin, and Illinois, all of the universities targeted by FFRF are in the South.