The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is targeting Auburn University after an event at its campus led to approximately 200 students being baptized, including some by Auburn coaches, with the atheist organization claiming that if a university staff member “participate[s] in religious events” it violates the Constitution.
FFRF states on its website that it “works as an umbrella for those who are free from religion and are committed to the cherished principle of separation of state and church.” FFRF’s principal founder Anne Gaylor further explained, ‘To be free from religion is an advantage for individuals; it is a necessity for government.’”
The organization falsely claims that “most social and moral progress has been brought about by persons free from religion.”
Auburn assistant basketball coach Chad Prewett and his wife, Tonya, organized a worship night called Auburn Unite, leading to a wave of baptisms. Thousands of students chose to attend Auburn Unite. Several Auburn coaches participated as well, including head baseball coach Butch Thompson, head men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl, and head football coach Hugh Freeze (the former head football coach at Liberty University). Men’s basketball chaplain Jeremy Napier said he baptized at least 20 students.
Following Auburn Unite, FFRF attorney Chris Line sent a letter to Auburn’s president, Christopher Roberts, claiming the event, the coaches’ participation, and the university’s retention of chaplains violates the Establishment Clause. The letter stated:
“Auburn University is a public university, not a religious one. It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for University employees to use their University position to organize, promote, or participate in a religious worship event. Nor can Auburn’s coaches proselytize or participate in religious activities with students or hire a chaplain to do so.”
Line also made claims about the nature of the First Amendment and the separation of church and state that reflect FFRF’s hostility towards religion rather than the law. Line called the separation of church and state a “constitutional principle” and claimed that the Establishment Clause, which prevents the government from establishing a state church, ensures the “separation of religion and government.” Line also claimed that “when a public university’s staff members sponsor and participate in religious events it violates this constitutional requirement by clearly favoring religion over nonreligion.”
The separation of church and state is nowhere to be found in the Constitution, however. What’s more, the Establishment Clause is intended to protect the religious exercise of Americans rather than to eliminate religion from public life.
In 2022, the Supreme Court clearly ruled in Kennedy v. Bremerton, a case involving a football coach, that public employees are not required to leave their religion at the door when they do their job and that religious exercise by public employees does not amount to coercion.
Legal experts also argued that Line’s assertions are out of order. These include First Liberty Institute’s Jeremy Dys who said that Auburn is on solid legal ground. Dys told Fox News that FFRF is simply upset that “Christian people are doing Christian things at a Christian organized event.”
“The Founding Fathers had absolutely no problem with this kind of thing. And the Supreme Court has recently reaffirmed that this is perfectly acceptable, that coaches like Coach Freeze and all the other coaches involved here don’t have to shed their constitutional rights when they walk to the schoolhouse gate. Unless and until this organization comes to us with something resembling proof that this has been coercive or forcing people to bow down in a way that they don’t want to do, then they need to go back and read the First Amendment that guarantees the free exercise of religion.”
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, R, shared Dys’s view, sending her own letter to Line. She wrote,
“The last thing I want is for Alabama college and university officials to be taking legal advice from an organization that does not recognize these points and whose self-avowed purpose is to promote a strict view of so-called ‘separation of church and state.’ I hope you will someday come to know what makes the state of Alabama such a special place for so many of us. In the meantime please understand that our state motto is ‘We dare defend our rights.’ As governor I can assure you that we will not be intimidated by out-of-state interest groups dedicated to destroying our nation’s religious heritage.”
Line conceded that FFRF had no evidence of any student being penalized for not participating, saying, “If we had a lot of evidence, we would not have written a letter. This would be a lawsuit.”
The FFRF is a hostile organization that believes religion is bad for society and has no place in the public square. Its beliefs are not only incorrect but in opposition to the Constitution and Supreme Court rulings. As mentioned earlier, the Supreme Court ruled in 2022 that school employees may practice their religion on school grounds. In that case, a school district had fired a football coach for praying at midfield after games. Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch explained,
“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic—whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head. Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. And the only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisal rested on a mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”
FFRF has a mission to bully public institutions, in hopes of forcing them to ferret out and suppress religious observances. As the Supreme Court wrote, the Constitution does not tolerate that kind of discrimination. Auburn has nothing to apologize for and nothing to fear. It allowed students and employees to express their faith without retribution — which is exactly what the free exercise of religion was intended to ensure.
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