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Gridiron prayer sparks debate over team chaplains at public universities

By
Pamela Manson
The role of chaplains for the football team is under debate at Boise State University in Idaho. File Photo by Robert Crow/Shutterstock
The role of chaplains for the football team is under debate at Boise State University in Idaho. File Photo by Robert Crow/Shutterstock

Feb. 16 (UPI) -- A debate over whether public schools and universities should have chaplains for sports teams has been revived at Boise State University.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation complained to Boise State that having a chaplain who travels with the football team and leads prayer on the playing field is a violation of the constitutional principle of separation between church and state.

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The university responded by using private donations to cover the cost of transporting pastor Mark Thornton to and from games. But the FFRF says the university should abolish the team chaplaincy and educate its athletic staff on "appropriate constitutional boundaries."

"Public school athletic teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team, or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain because public schools may not advance or promote religion," FFRF said its complaint to Boise State.

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The university responded to the FFRF's complaint in a news release that said Thornton still will attend away games; join players on the sidelines; hold chapel the evening before each game; take part in student-led prayers before and after each game; lead weekly Bible studies; and be available to student-athletes who want to pray with him and seek his counsel. Thornton, who is a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, serves as a volunteer chaplain in an informal arrangement with Boise State.

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"We seriously evaluated the constitutional considerations related to this matter, our legal team made an appropriate response, and we remain committed to protecting all student-athletes' individual rights," the release says.

FFRF staff attorney Chris Line says there are constitutional issues with having a chaplain who acts as an official part of the team, even if donors pay all travel expenses.

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The debate arose after Boise State and Brigham Young University football players joined hands and knelt together on the field after a Nov. 6 game in Idaho as Thornton prayed over them. Boise State is a public university in Idaho; BYU, located in Provo, Utah, is a private university owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"We prayed for the guys who got hurt on both sides of the field, just for a quick recovery for them," Thornton told the Deseret News, a Salt Lake City-based newspaper. "We blessed BYU and just prayed that they would continue to have a great season, and that we would continue to have a great season, as well."

The News story says the role of faith in the two schools' football programs is "strikingly similar."

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The article, which includes photos of the prayer session that took place after the BYU Cougars defeated the Boise State Broncos 51-17, caught the attention of the FFRF.

"You can't really even tell the difference between Brigham Young, the religious private college, and Boise State, the public secular school, because they both have so much religion ingrained in the program. They both have religious leaders," Line told UPI.

He added that if religion in football programs comes from the players themselves, "it's more than appropriate."

"It's a constitutional right that those players have," Line said. "If the situation were reversed and it were Brigham Young's chaplain leading that prayer and the public school players just chose to join in of their own free will, then we would never have written a letter. The issue is that the person who led the prayer between the two teams was Boise State's religious leader."

The FFRF letter, which was addressed to Boise State President Marlene Tromp, says abolishing the team chaplaincy will not alter student athletes' ability to pray, but it will prevent them from feeling coerced into participating in prayers to a deity they may not believe in.

"Boise State University unequivocally supports and will fiercely defend our students' right to the free exercise of religion," the university said in a Dec. 16 news release. "It's shameful that parties external to the university are using a photo of student-athlete prayer as an opportunity to attempt to interfere with our student-athletes' constitutional right to freely practice the religion of their choosing."

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In addition, the release said Tromp was paying out of her own pocket for the pastor's travel expenses to the Dec. 19 Mountain West Championship game in Nevada and that the school had set up a Free Exercise Fund to support spiritual advisers' travel to games.

Tromp, who contributed $1,000 to the fund, said she was moved by the players' ability "to reach across a divide to one another in a difficult time" in the post-game prayer.

"We need more love in the world -- especially with all the crises we've faced this year -- and this was a sure sign of it," Tromp said in the news release.

Thornton said in the release that he feels his influence in their lives helps the players grow.

In an email to UPI, the FCA, which is headquartered in Kansas City, Mo., says many public institutions offer the services of chaplains to those who request them and every student athlete has the right to participate in activities according to their religious convictions.

"The Fellowship of Christian Athletes' chaplains are not employees of universities and the activities they lead are purely voluntary on the part of coaches, athletes and students," the FCA said. "All are invited to participate and there are no repercussions for students who decline to do so."

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The dispute over chaplains for sports teams is not new. In 2015, FFRF issued "Pray to Play," a report alleging that 25 public universities were allowing football coaches to impose their personal religion on players by hiring Christian chaplains.

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