The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), an anti-religion advocacy group, has set its sights on Auburn University in Alabama, taking issue with a series of student baptisms conducted on campus.
The catalyst for this clash was the participation of Auburn Tigers head football coach, Hugh Freeze, in one such baptism, captured on film. However, legal experts are now contesting the FFRF’s assertion that these baptisms breach the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.
The FFRF, on Friday, sent a letter addressed to Auburn University President Christopher Roberts, raising concerns over more than 200 student baptisms. In the letter, FFRF argued that these baptisms, particularly one aided by Coach Freeze, created an environment that was coercive and exclusionary for non-Christian students.
They contended that the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which mandates the separation of church and state, was violated. The letter pointedly stated, “These ongoing and repeated constitutional violations at the University create a coercive environment that excludes those students who don’t subscribe to the Christian views being pushed onto players by their coaches.”
Tyson Langhofer, senior counsel and director of the Center for Academic Freedom at Alliance Defending Freedom, staunchly criticized FFRF’s interpretation of the First Amendment, labeling it “twisted.” Alliance Defending Freedom is a renowned firm, well-known for its victories in numerous Supreme Court cases involving First Amendment and religious freedom. Langhofer emphasized, “Public universities are supposed to be the marketplace of ideas and have an obligation to protect and promote free speech and free exercise of religion. Auburn University is a public university, not a religious one.”
In a direct rebuke to the FFRF’s claims, Langhofer asserted that the letter itself is “unconstitutional.” He invoked a recent Supreme Court case, the Coach Kennedy case, which reaffirmed the rights of religious coaches and students to engage in religious activities on campus in their private capacity. According to Langhofer, FFRF’s intention to silence religious students sends a message of unwelcome, which he deems unconstitutional.
The student baptisms took place at Auburn’s Red Barn venue, adjacent to Auburn University’s Neville Arena, following the “Unite Auburn” worship event that drew a large crowd. This event featured performances by Christian worship band Passion, along with guest speakers like Christian author Jennie Allen and Rev. Jonathan Pokluda, lead pastor of Harris Creek Baptist Church in Waco, Texas.
After the event, an individual expressed a desire to be baptized, but no appropriate facilities were available. Spontaneously, students congregated at a nearby lake to fulfill this spiritual aspiration. Witnessed through photographs and video footage, hundreds of college students stood along the lake’s banks as they took turns wading into the water for baptism.
Kenzie Gay, a senior at Auburn, shared her experience, describing the profound sense of joy and peace that permeated the event. “What was so great about these baptisms is that it wasn’t a planned religious event. It was just a whole bunch of college students moved by their desire to follow Jesus,” noted Auburn student Mateo Arenas.
Christian Huff, a prominent Christian podcaster and husband to Sadie Robertson of the Duck Dynasty family, expressed his incredulity on Instagram in response to FFRF’s letter. He labeled the notion of a football coach baptizing a player after an event as an “absolute joke” to warrant a warning to the university.
As of now, Auburn University has confirmed receipt of FFRF’s letter and is evaluating its contents, but no further comments have been provided. The clash between the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s interpretation of the First Amendment and the stance of legal experts remains ongoing, as the university grapples with how to address this peculiar challenge to the constitutional boundaries of religious expression.