A Wisconsin-based atheist advocacy group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), has raised concerns about the involvement of Auburn University coaches in a campus revival event, alleging that their actions violate the U.S. Constitution.
FFRF sent a demand letter to Auburn President Christopher Roberts, asserting that constitutional violations are taking place in the university’s sports programs.
The event in question, titled “Unite Auburn,” took place on September 12 at Neville Arena and reportedly saw the participation of Auburn’s head football coach, Hugh Freeze, as well as basketball coach Bruce Pearl and baseball coach Butch Thompson. Over 100 people were baptized during the event.
FFRF attorney Christopher Line described the event as a “religious worship service” aimed at helping Auburn students grow their faith in God and unite the Christian community. In a promotional video, Coach Butch Thompson encouraged students to “come together and lift the name of Jesus.”
The crux of FFRF’s argument is that Auburn University is a public institution, and it is, therefore, inappropriate and unconstitutional for university employees to organize, promote, or participate in a religious event. They claim these actions violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prevents the government from showing favoritism towards religion.
FFRF’s letter to Auburn served as an open records request, asking for all documents related to the “Unite Auburn” event, including emails from athletic department staff members and financial records related to the event.
The letter also emphasized the influence and power that coaches hold over their student-athletes, suggesting that students may feel pressured to participate in team religious activities even if they disagree with their coach’s beliefs.
However, not everyone agrees with FFRF’s position. Tyson Langhofer, Senior Counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a nonprofit legal organization, argued that FFRF’s interpretation of the First Amendment is flawed. ADF has won several religious freedom cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and believes that public universities should protect and promote free speech and the free exercise of religion.
Langhofer cited a recent Supreme Court case involving Coach Kennedy, where it was reaffirmed that religious coaches and students have the right to engage in religious activities on campus in their private capacity. He called FFRF’s demands unconstitutional and suggested that their desire to silence religious students sends a message that they are not welcome on campus.
Unite Auburn, the organization behind the event, aims to unite college students in lifting up the name of Jesus. The event featured speakers, including Pastor Jonathan Pokluda from Harris Creek Baptist Church in Waco, Texas.
FFRF’s Line argued that using public university coaching positions to inject religion into sports programs amounts to religious coercion. He maintained that Auburn University should not lend its power and prestige to religion, excluding non-Christian students, including those who are religiously unaffiliated.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of FFRF, alleged that the coaches’ participation in “Unite Auburn” amounted to an abuse of power. Notably, this is not the first time Coach Hugh Freeze has drawn the ire of FFRF. In 2017, FFRF attempted to pressure the University of Mississippi, where Freeze served as head football coach at the time, to ban him from using his official Twitter account to discuss his Christian faith and God.
FFRF’s letter to Auburn also pointed out that they have previously raised concerns about Auburn’s coaches using their public positions to promote their personal religious beliefs, including hiring Christian chaplains for players.
Gaylor urged the coaches mentioned in the letter to dismiss team chaplains, arguing that their presence suggests an inappropriate relationship between Auburn University and Christian evangelists.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has raised concerns about Auburn University coaches’ involvement in a religious event, claiming it violates the U.S. Constitution. They argue that these actions favor one religion over others in a public institution, while others believe that students and coaches have the right to express their religious beliefs on campus.