A Wisconsin-based secular group announced Tuesday that it is fighting the religious culture in Auburn University’s football program.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) said in a press release that it sent Auburn an open records request in 2014, asking for information related to football chaplain Chette Williams.
The church-and-state watchdog decided to continue its efforts “to stop the unconstitutionally excessive piety in Auburn University’s football program” after a video surfaced of Williams leading the team in prayer before Auburn’s Homecoming game against Southern Mississippi on Sept. 29.
The AL.com video shows the team standing, arms linked in a circle on Pat Dye Field. Williams prays out loud before two of the football players take turns praying aloud as well.
“We pray for each family represented in this circle, Father,” Williams said in the video. “We pray for those who are traveling to the game, but most of all Father, we pray that your power and presence be with this team today.”
The FFRF shared a letter to Auburn University President Steven Leath, dated Monday, in which legal fellow Christopher Line stated that multiple people complained to the organization about the prayer when the video was published.
“We’d like to remind AU that employing a chaplain and giving him unfettered access to a captive audience of football players is unconstitutional,” the letter read. “While student athletes are free to pray, either individually or as (a) group, university staff members should not be leading, participating in, or encouraging students to engage in religious exercises, or hiring ‘chaplains’ to do so.”
According to a statement from the university to the Opelika-Auburn News on Tuesday night, “The football team chaplain isn’t an Auburn employee, and participation in activities he leads are voluntary.”
The letter from the FFRF references its 2014 open records request, saying the organization exchanged emails with a then-assistant athletic director, Cassie Arner, and submitted a $500 deposit, then never received the documents it requested from the university.
The letter also again requested documents including records of the chaplain’s travel with the football team and communication between the chaplain and football staff regarding Bible studies or other religious activities for the team.
“Auburn needs to shut down the prayer and chaplaincy that it has permitted for so long in its football program,” FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a press release from the foundation. “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.”
Williams’ legacy on the Plains
A former linebacker (1982-84) for the Tigers, Williams has served as the Auburn football team chaplain since 1999.
Williams also serves as the Auburn campus director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and the State Director for Urban Ministries for FCA, according to his profile on the Auburn Athletics website. According to the Auburn University FCA website, Williams “ministers on a daily basis not only to coaches, players and their families, but to numerous staff throughout the athletic department as well.”
AU and FFRF in the past
The FFRF previously sent a letter Aug. 18, 2015, to then-Auburn University president Jay Gogue, urging the university to disallow “student body chaplains or other religious representatives” from having special access to players, as per the organization’s “Pray To Play Report” that was published in 2015.
In a letter from FFRF co-presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor to Gogue, the organization stated that “it makes no difference if the chaplain is unofficial, not school-sponsored, or a volunteer, because chaplains are given access to the team as a means for coaches to impose religion, usually Christianity, on their players.”
The university responded at the time with a denial of Williams’ employment with the university.
“Chaplains are common in many public institutions, including the U.S. Congress," the Auburn Athletic Department said in its statement in 2015 in response to the FFRF’s letter to Gogue. "The football team chaplain isn’t an Auburn employee, and participation in activities he leads (is) voluntary.”
Previous dealing in Lee County
FFRF was also involved in Lee County last year in regard to a prayer that was broadcasted over the loudspeaker of a Smiths Station High School football game on Aug. 25, 2017. The organization stated that it was contacted “by a concerned District parent” following the school’s football game.
The complaint filed Aug. 31 to Superintendent James McCoy referenced several U.S. Supreme Court decisions on the issue of school prayer. Specifically, the letter from the FFRF cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1992 ruling in the case of Lee v. Weisman, which struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools.
Additionally, the FFRF cited the Court’s opinion from its 2000 ruling of Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe that ruled that student-led, student-initiated prayer that was broadcast over a loudspeaker at football games violated the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.
Lee County Schools responded, through Huntsville law firm Lanier Ford Shavey and Payne, to the FFRF’s complaint on Sept. 11, 2017, in a letter signed by attorney William Sanderson. In the letter, Sanderson wrote, “Dr. McCoy has informed his principals that he expects all Lee County Schools to comply with current law with respect to prayer at football games held on Lee County Schools property.”
Lee County Schools, which includes Smiths Station, Loachapoka, Beauregard and Beulah, abided by McCoy’s directive following the complaint.
Despite the halt of the prayer being broadcast over the loudspeaker, students and parents recited the Lord’s Prayer during a moment of silence at Beauregard and at Central-Phenix City when Smiths Station traveled there on Sept. 22.