Contentious debates between the separation of church and state are nothing new. The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution combine to form what we commonly know as the separation of church and state, and watchdog groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) work to uphold those statutes by any means necessary.
In October 2018, the FFRF filed multiple open records requests in the state of Alabama against Auburn University in regards to the employment of the team’s football chaplain, Chette Williams. The group is attacking the football program for giving the chaplain “unfettered access” to the Auburn football team, and they claim offering opportunities for prayer and reflection is unconstitutional.
Back in 2015, the FFRF filed a similar grievance directly to the Auburn University president at the time, Jay Gogue. The FFRF stated that after email exchanges with an assistant athletic director, submitting the original documentation, and paying a $500 deposit, they still had not received the open record documentation several years later.
In 2018, the Wisconsin-based group resubmitted their requests, demanding information on the history of hiring practices, the university’s religious practice policies, religious meeting information, communications history including emails between the Auburn football program and team chaplains, and the fiscal relationship between the university and team chaplains.
The second round of requests for public records, as well as another copy of the group’s 2015 “Pray to Play” report, was sent via mail and email to Auburn president Dr. Steven Leath.
That “Pray to Play” report attacks various religious aspects of athletics, including attacks on the beliefs and practices of head coaches such as Mark Richt, Tommy Tuberville, Bobby Bowden, as well as various chaplains at major college football programs preaching single religion beliefs like Christianity.
“Auburn needs to shut down the prayer and chaplaincy that it has permitted for so long in its football program. By allowing it to continue, it is giving its official seal of approval to Christian proselytizing that is not only unconstitutional but also alienating to non-Christian and nonreligious athletes. No student should be expected to pray to play.”
— FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor
Chette Williams, who played linebacker for Auburn from 1982-84, serves as Auburn’s campus director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the State Director of Urban Ministries for the group in addition to his role as team chaplain.
The specific incident the FFRF cited in their press release is a pregame prayer prior to the Auburn Tigers football game on September 29, 2018 against the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles in which Williams leads what the FFRF called an “unmistakably Christian prayer.”
Auburn is not alone in employing a team chaplain, as hundreds of other private and public universities have them present for student-athletes. None of the Auburn football players have spoken out against Williams, outraged that they participated in this prayer or any FCA event led by Williams during his tenure with the university.
The legal claim will continue at the behest of the watchdog group, which serves 32,000 members across the country, including in the state of Alabama.
The FFRF’s Twitter page bio sarcastically reads: “National non prophet nonprofit working to promote the separation of state and church.”
Editor’s Note: First published on October 24, 2018