Auburn coaches’ role in prayer event draws fire from atheist group


An atheist advocacy group is attacking state-owned Auburn University for the role three of its coaches played in an evangelical Christian worship event at the Alabama school last week.

The “Unite Auburn” event on Sept. 12 was held in the school’s Neville Arena, with the rent funded by private donations. About 200 students were baptized after the event in a small lake on campus, illuminated by automobile headlights.

Auburn football coach Hugh Freeze, who formerly helmed the squad at Liberty University, the nation’s largest evangelical Christian school, baptized one of his players that night. 

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, which claims a mission “to protect” church-state separation, objected to Mr. Freeze’s role in the baptisms and said it received “numerous reports” that he, Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl and baseball coach Butch Thompson “actively promoted” the event to students.

“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,” the group said in the letter.

Freedom from Religion Foundation staff attorney Christopher Line, who wrote what he called a “warning letter” to university President Christopher B. Roberts, said the group did not object to Auburn’s renting the meeting space for the event or with the students attending or having the baptism afterward.

“Our main issues revolve around the three coaches promoting the event and many times seeming like they’re doing it through their position as coaches,” Mr. Line said in a telephone interview Thursday. Such endorsements, he said, made it seem as if “Unite Auburn” was an “Auburn sports sponsored event, like, ‘We coaches here at Auburn think you should go to this event.’”

Mr. Line said the atheist foundation is demanding the school “educate” its coaches “as to their constitutional duties as university employees.” He also says the hiring of “chaplains” for the athletes is illegal.

The foundation, which points out that Auburn “is a public university, not a religious one,” accused Auburn of creating “a coercive environment” and alienating non-Christian students through “ongoing and repeated constitutional violations.”

The group also wants all records relating to the event, the letter said.

Mr. Line conceded the group did not have any evidence of a student being “penalized” for not participating in the worship event. 

“If we had a lot of evidence, we would not have written a letter. This would be a lawsuit,” he said.

Jeremy Dys, special counsel at First Liberty Institute — which recently came to the defense of University of Colorado football coach Deion Sanders when the atheist group complained about Mr. Sanders’ praying with his staff — dismissed the group’s contentions.

In a statement to The Washington Times, Mr. Dys said, “If Auburn requires any reminder, it is that the First Amendment doubly protects religion and warns against preferencing secular activity above religious. The First Amendment would be empty of all meaning if, as some seem to suggest, it required Auburn to purge religion from its campus or its employees.“

A spokesperson for Mr. Roberts, the university president, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. “Unite Auburn” organizer Tonya Prewett, whose husband Chad is an assistant basketball coach at the school, also did not respond to an inquiry.

The Washington Times also has asked the office of Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and Sen. Tommy Tuberville, Alabama Republican and a former Auburn football coach, for comment.


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