A group of atheistic vigilantes dead set on eradicating all vestiges of evangelical Christianity from American culture is now targeting football chaplains at public universities, especially those in the South.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF)—an association of some 23,000 “free-thinking” atheists, agnostics and skeptics—has sent an incendiary report to presidents at two dozen universities, claiming that coaches and chaplains who are Christians are openly proselytizing and creating coercive environments that pressure student-athletes to accept their Christian beliefs. Based in Madison, Wis., FFRF officials are calling on colleges to abolish all chaplain programs that have any hint of religious activity and to hire secular character development coaches who are neutral to religion.
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The response from Christian ministries was swift. The president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), especially vilified in the FFRF report, said Christians must speak up on these issues. “We’re going to remain bold and courageous,” said Les Steckel, a former college and pro football coach and retired Marine colonel who has been active with FCA for 30-plus years.
Despite this attack, Steckel said FCA’s some 1,300 staff members around the world are resolute to fulfill FCA’s mission to “present to coaches and athletes, and all whom they influence, the challenge and adventure of receiving Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and serving Him in their relationships and in the fellowship of the church.”
“We’re not going to waver from that,” he told Decision. “The time is now to be more visible and outspoken about our Christian faith.”
Also in the FFRF crosshairs was coaching legend Bobby Bowden, whose Florida State Seminoles captured national championships in 1993 and 1999. When told over the phone that the report claimed he had “abused his publicly funded position of power and authority over vulnerable young men—both players and coaches—to impose his personal religion on them,” Bowden lamented, “Oh boy, they come from a different era and background than I came from.”
Striking a reflective tone, Bowden said, “I don’t know if they’re going to feel the same way when they’re on their death bed.”
The 85-year-old Bowden didn’t mince words: “When you look at the front page and see how our young people are getting into problems with this and that, I can’t understand why [FFRF] would want to do anything to keep these young men from hearing what God wants, you know? It’s very frustrating to hear the way they hammer Christians. I think we need more Christians standing up for what they believe.”
The FFRF report was also critical of Ken Smith, a Baptist minister who served as a volunteer chaplain to the Florida State football team during the early Bowden era. Smith then became instrumental in leading the chaplaincy at South Carolina. He also was a voluntary chaplain at Mississippi State and now works with the chaplain at the University of Mississippi.
FFRF officials labeled Smith as “the grandfather” of football chaplains. “That’s because I’m old,” Smith joked. But he turned serious when he responded to what the FFRF said about him: “Over the years, Bowden’s assistant coaches and his first chaplain [Smith] transferred to other public universities, impregnating those programs with the same religiosity—and disrespect for the Constitution.”
“There’s some things they’ve crossed the line on,” Smith retorted. “As I read the First Amendment, it talks about the freedom to exercise religion, not to be exorcised from religion.”
Smith questioned why some college professors are lauded for their in-class rants against Christianity and for the way they belittle students who express their faith. “The atheist doesn’t mind having a professor express his views that are anti-Christian, but he gets upset because I voice mine. I have a right as a Christian to express my value system.”
The FFRF report contends that many coaches are “converting playing fields into mission fields, and public universities are doing nothing to halt this breach of trust.” Thereby, these universities are “failing their student-athletes.”
According to the FFRF, the most egregious violations have occurred at Auburn University, University of Georgia, University of South Carolina, Clemson University, Mississippi State University, University of Alabama, University of Tennessee, Louisiana State University, University of Mississippi, University of Missouri, Georgia Institute of Technology, Florida State University, University of Illinois, University of Wisconsin and University of Washington.
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The FFRF asserts: “Public universities and their employees cannot endorse, promote or favor religion. Yet, many football coaches at public universities bring in chaplains—often from their own church or even members of their own family—to prey on and pray with students, with no regard for the rights of those students or the Constitution.”
Travis S. Weber, director of the Family Research Council’s Center for Religious Liberty, bristles at that last statement. He argues that the “purpose of the Establishment Clause is to prevent the government from compelling individuals to adopt specific religious beliefs under penalty of law, not to scrub the public square of all religious references and activities.”
The FFRF’s report is but another example of how they continue to mistakenly believe it is the latter, Weber said. “It merely confirms the FFRF’s tactics of venturing far and wide in search of a fight as it meddles in local communities and attacks servant-hearted sports chaplains who play a valuable and needed role for their teams,” he explained.
Weber pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway as a reminder of how the Establishment Clause is not violated every time “a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views.” The opinion stated, “Offense … does not equate to coercion.”
Jeremy Dys, senior counsel for the Liberty Institute, which specializes in religious liberty issues, said universities do not have to “kowtow to the demands of those who are intent upon whitewashing and intentionally stamping out any reference to religion in America.”
“The FFRF does this largely by intimidating letters and reports like what we’ve now seen,” Dys said. “But threats to file a lawsuit are not lawsuits. They are merely threats, and many of them are hollow.”
Dys advised the universities to carefully weigh their response. “By striking down the demand for chaplains by their students, university officials run the risk of creating an environment that is hostile to religion on campus,” he said. “Student-athletes face enough challenges today; they do not need a university that is hostile toward their religious faith.”
The University of Georgia and Auburn University released official statements in response to the FFRF report. Georgia’s athletic director Greg McGarity said: “The local chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes provides optional chaplain services for student-athletes that wish to participate. Neither the university nor the athletic association finances these activities, and they are completely voluntary for the student-athletes.”
Auburn’s statement was similar: “Chaplains are common in many public institutions, including the U.S. Congress. The football team chaplain isn’t an Auburn employee, and participation in activities he leads are voluntary.”
Engulfed in this swirling controversy is former Auburn player and now chaplain Chette Williams. He’s been singled out for his local FCA ministry and the national chaplaincy training program he oversees. But he has his defenders. Phillip Marshall, senior writer and columnist for AuburnTigers.com, wrote in a column: “The good that Williams, affectionately known as Brother Chette, has done for Auburn football players since Tommy Tuberville brought him on board in 1999, is immeasurable. He’s far more than a preacher of the Gospel. He’s a friend, a confidant, a counselor. He has helped countless players through the deaths of loved ones and teammates, the breakup of families, the harsh realities of college football and life’s difficulties in general.”
Regarding the voluntary nature of attending religious-oriented events, Bobby Bowden recalls one star player from Pennsylvania he signed to West Virginia University, where he coached prior to Florida State. “Before each ball game, we had prayer, and I always said, ‘Men, if this offends anything you were taught, you can go outside and wait in the hall and when we’re through praying, we’ll come get you and go to the field.’”
That player, who was an atheist, left for at least four weeks in a row. “First thing I know, he quit going out that door,” Bowden remembered. “And you know what? When that young man eventually left us, he was a Christian and was speaking in churches. And probably does today. He’d be 60-something years of age.
“Many of our players were saved,” Bowden said. “But it’s not because I insisted that they be saved, but because they chose to be saved.” ©2015 BGEA