Colorado University’s new head coach Deion Sanders, a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, has been chided by an atheist group for praying with his football players before meetings and games, The Christian Post first reported.
Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist group, recently complained that Sanders was violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by praying with CU players. In a January 24 letter to Colorado University, FFRF called Sanders’ prayers “school-sponsored proselytizing.”
Prayers Not Welcome
FFRF attorney Christopher Line wrote in the letter that “multiple concerned Colorado residents have reached out to FFRF to report that CU’s new football coach Deion Sanders has been infusing his program with Christianity and engaging in religious exercises with players and staff members.” Line specifically pointed to one of Sanders’ prayers:
Lord, we thank You for this day, Father, for this opportunity as a group. Father, we thank You for the movement that God has put us in place to be in charge of. We thank You for each player here, each coach, each family. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
FFRF stated that the prayer violated the Establishment Clause as well as discriminated against non-Christians. The group demanded that Colorado University train Sanders on “his [c]onstitutional duties under the Establishment Clause” as well as ensure that Sanders does not proselytize to his players or “subject them to coercive team prayers.”
Deion Sanders ‘Trained’ on Establishment Clause
CU responded to FFRF that Sanders had received the training they requested. Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer Patrick O’Rourke stated in a January 27 letter that, “Last Friday, the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance personally met with Coach Sanders to provide guidance on the non-discrimination policies, including guidance on the boundaries in which players and coaches may and may not engage in religious expression. Coach Sanders was very receptive to this training and came away from it with a better understanding of the University of Colorado’s policies and the requirements of the Establishment Clause.”
Prayer is a Constitutional Right
Sanders has since retained Counsel Keisha Russell of First Liberty Institute to help him navigate through the First Amendment issue. Russell, in a letter to CU, explained that “The [U.S.] Supreme Court has repeatedly held that public school employees may engage in religious expression and exercise; therefore, public universities like CU may not target Coach Sanders (or other members of the football staff) for exercising constitutional rights on campus.” Russell also referenced the decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, which held that a Washington state school district “discriminated against a football coach by suspending him for engaging in prayer on the football field after games,” The Christian Post reported.
Russell also wrote that “First Amendment protections extend to both public employees and students, ‘neither of whom shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.’” By giving guidance to Sanders, the school risked “state-sponsored censorship of Coach Sanders’ private speech.”
Sanders has been quite outspoken with his faith, especially regarding his heath problems that led to two toes being amputated. “I can’t walk on my own and people have to help me get in and out of everything, and I say, ‘Lord, I thank you,’” he once said. “You say, ‘Prime, how can you say Lord I thank you and it’s hard for you to help yourself?’ Because I’m alive.”
Nancy Flory, Ph.D., is a senior editor at The Stream. You can follow her @NancyFlory3, and follow The Stream @Streamdotorg.