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Alabama's governor defends religious coercion by Auburn U. coaches
"No one faced any threat of adverse consequences for declining to participate," said Gov. Kay Ivey, who's never heard of coercion
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Somehow, a polite request for public university employees to stop pushing their Christian faith on students has led to the Alabama governor stepping in to offer her support for the proselytizers.
The controversy began just over a week ago when thousands of students at Auburn University attended a Christian event called “Unite.” It was your typical evangelical gathering with music, sermons about the importance of sexual purity, and, at the end, a call for students to be baptized. The chaplain for the men’s basketball team told the student newspaper that over 100 students heeded that call.
None of that would raise too many eyebrows outside the arena. No one who’s not Christian would have cared. It’s Alabama. There are lots of Jesus people there. No big deal.
The problem is that a number of prominent coaches at the school promoted and participated in the event. Hell, the school’s basketball team was literally part of the festivities:
[Speaker Jennie] Allen then brought the Auburn University Men's Basketball team onstage to help illustrate a point she wanted to show the audience rather than tell them. Basketball center Dylan Cardwell walked onstage blindfolded, and Allen asked the audience to name their sins and struggles, each of which were attributed to another basketball player onstage. Each of the players surrounding Cardwell then pretended to attack him as he stood blindfolded, yet Allen instructed him to remove the blindfold and fight back, showing that when Christians can see their sin, they can finally fight back.
Several notable players and coaches promoted the event through social media including Cardwell, quarterback Payton Thorne, football coach Hugh Freeze and basketball coach Bruce Pearl.
"Our Students, that's what makes Auburn Special! Deliverance, Freedom and Building stronger relationships with God while becoming an Auburn Man or Woman! Doesn't get better than this! Let's UNITE," Pearl tweeted.
It’s not just promotion. After the official event, Freeze was seen personally baptizing a student:
You can see why all this is a concern.
It’s not that the students wanted to attend a Christian event or that the wife of one of the school’s basketball coaches organized the event, which they had every right to do.
It’s that employees of the public university—some of the most famous men on campus—promoting Christianity in their professional capacities.
At that point, it’s government-sponsored faith.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Auburn explaining the problem while noting that this was not the first time Auburn employees had used their positions to proselytize. In fact, it was a pretty famous guy back then too.
In 2015, FFRF published its “Pray to Play” report, in which abuses at Auburn are heavily featured. Notably, Tommy Tuberville, now a U.S. senator who is holding up Pentagon nominations to protest abortion rights, was responsible as Auburn’s overly prayerful football coach for establishing many unconstitutional religious practices in Auburn team sports. The report details how universities like Auburn have allowed their football coaches to impose their personal religious beliefs on players by hiring Christian chaplains. FFRF wrote to Auburn again in 2019 regarding football Chaplain Chette Williams, who is still employed by the university to proselytize and pray with the football team.
Just last year, FFRF added, Bruce Pearl “took players on a tour of the Holy Land in Israel… [describing] this school-sponsored religious trip as the ‘Birthright for College Basketball.’”
Freeze did this sort of thing as well when he worked at Ole Miss.
Mississippi head coach Hugh Freeze cares more about converting players than about winning, “When my life comes to an end, how much does that scoreboard really matter?” Jill Freeze, his wife, explained what Freeze really cares about: “His passion… is to use football to reach others for Christ.” Noted one article, “the lengths to which Freeze goes to inject Christianity into a major FBS program at a state university is striking, even in the heart of the Bible Belt.” Ken Smith, the first of the chaplains, said of Freeze: “He sees coaching as a ministry more than anyone I’ve ever met…” Freeze sees his position as head coach as a chance to win converts for Jesus, his team is the mission field, and his chaplain is simply a tool to help him accomplish those conversions.
Nobody is stopping these coaches from being as devout as they want in their personal lives. But when they use their positions to win converts, they’ve crossed a line. They’ve made it very clear—repeatedly—that that’s their goal. And Auburn University is looking the other way because these guys appear to be too powerful to rein in or criticize.
The coaches have no business preaching while on the clock. They shouldn’t have team chaplains on the payroll either. As we saw with the debacle in Bremerton, Washington, these things have a coercive effect on students who may feel obligated to join in because they want to stay on the coaches’ good side. That’s arguably even more true at a college like Auburn than in a random high school, because these athletes have one eye on their possible professional careers.
As FFRF attorney Chris Line explained:
Auburn’s sports programs are full of young and impressionable student athletes who would not risk giving up their scholarship, giving up playing time, or losing a good recommendation from their coach by speaking out or voluntarily opting out of any team religious activities—even if they strongly disagreed with his beliefs. Coaches exert great influence and power over student athletes and those athletes will follow the lead of their coaches. Using public university coaching positions to inject religion into its sports programs amounts to religious coercion.
FFRF didn’t say they were suing the school. They did, however, urge Auburn officials to “take action” to protect students and ensure that coaches stay in their lanes. They asked for written confirmation that those requests will be taken seriously. Finally, FFRF made an open records request for all communications and finances involving the “Unite” event.
That strikes me as a fairly straightforward request from a group that believes (for good reason!) there was wrongdoing at a public university. The problems were described in great detail. Now it’s the school’s responsibility to prevent the problem from happening. Easy! Auburn should send FFRF a thank-you letter for bringing all this to their attention.
But that’s clearly not where this story is going.
A couple weeks ago, FFRF sent a separate letter to a different Alabama school: Snead State Community College. The public school’s president, Joe Whitmore, was leading prayers at staff events and meals and presenting a “guiding bible verse” to employees. FFRF told him to stop his “clear abuse of authority.”
The Auburn situation coupled with the letter to the community college apparently was too much for Governor Kay Ivey.
On Friday, she wrote a formal response to FFRF defending everyone involved at those institutions with no regard for the very real concerns FFRF raised. She insisted no one’s religious freedom was violated—based on vibes I guess—while insisting it would be illegal to force those college officials to “entirely remove faith from their lives”… which literally no one was requesting.
Suffice it to say, these letters are misleading and misguided. Here in Alabama, we stand with President Whitmore; Coaches Freeze, Pearl, and [baseball coach Butch] Thompson; and the countless other Alabamians who seek to be true to themselves—and to God—as they live out their lives and seek to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.
As Governor of Alabama, I take seriously my responsibility to faithfully execute the laws—and that includes safeguarding the religious freedom of all Alabamians, religious and nonreligious alike. But the facts described in your recent letters do not violate anyone's religious liberty. Even according to your own account, these events all involved adults interacting with other adults, and no one faced any threat of adverse consequences for declining to participate.
Ivey didn’t explain what was misleading. She sure as hell doesn’t understand how coercion works. At a college, the coach/athlete relationship is still subject to the law even though everyone involved is an adult.
Ivey added that “we should be more welcoming, not less, to expressions of faith, and society would be worse off were we to purge religion from our public institutions.”
There’s no citation for that because it doesn’t exist. But she’s also wrong about what FFRF is requesting. No one’s saying those coaches or administrators can’t practice their faith. No one’s demanding they become atheists. No one’s saying they can’t express their faith privately. The only problem is when they take advantage of their public jobs to spread their faith.
This would be so damn obvious if these people were Muslim or atheist or anything non-Christian. Ivey is unable to think beyond her Christian bubble. She just knows that because she’s comfortable with their expressions of faith, everyone else must be too.
She then dismissed FFRF altogether because she doesn’t think they’re a legitimate organization:
… the last thing I want is for Alabama college and university officials to be taking legal advice from an organization that does not recognize these points and whose self-avowed purpose is to promote a strict view of so-called "separation of church and state." I hope you will someday come to know what makes the State of Alabama such a special place for so many of us. In the meantime, please understand that our state motto is "We dare defend our rights." As Governor, I can assure you that we will not be intimidated by out-of-state interest groups dedicated to destroying our nation's religious heritage.
That “out-of-state” group is trying to prevent Alabama universities (and taxpayers) from losing expensive court battles by sharing their wisdom about an aspect of the Constitution they happen to be experts in. Ivey isn’t just denouncing FFRF; she’s attacking the very idea of the Establishment Clause.
“University administrators and coaches are free to express their religious beliefs in their private capacity outside of their role as public officials,” FFRF writes. “But it is coercive, inappropriate and unconstitutional for them to push their personal religious beliefs on others, particularly students or subordinates, while serving in their official capacity as government officials.”
“You took an oath of office to ‘support, obey, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the state of Alabama,’ not to promote ‘worship,’ to disseminate your personal religious beliefs through your office or to otherwise evangelize,” FFRF’s letter reminds the governor in concluding. “Please uphold that oath.”
Ivey has a long history of promoting conservative Christianity instead of being right. A few years ago, when a high school team had to forfeit a playoff game because they refused to play on the Sabbath, Ivey went after the organizers for punishing them. She has issued public statements like “The gift of Jesus is everlasting,” urging citizens to convert to her faith. She said she would vote for alleged child molester Roy Moore simply because he wasn’t a Democrat.
She’s a perfect example of what happens when you don’t know how to remove your Jesus-tinted glasses. It’s just bad decision after bad decision, all because she’s starting from the premise that her religion always matters more than the facts. (Tuberville, too, responded to all this by saying he was “Happy to be criticized for being ‘overly prayerful.’”)
For what it’s worth, Auburn University hasn’t released a similar response. They told a local news station that they received FFRF’s letter and they’re “evaluating it.” It would be a shock if they did anything to fix the problem they’ve allowed to fester, but it would also be the correct move. Listening to the governor could lead them into a costly court battle where there’s plenty of video evidence of their employees violating the law.
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