Some call it freedom from religion.
I call it bigotry.
I refer to the calls to censor religious expression at Auburn University. On Sept. 12, 2023, students and coaches held a Christian praise event in Auburn’s Neville Arena, believing the First Amendment applied to them even while attending a state university. About 4,000 people attended, and roughly 200 received Christian baptism.
It’s a free country, you might say. People have a right to worship, praise, and be baptized if they want to, don’t they?
Not according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a Wisconsin-based group of self-described “atheists, agnostics, and skeptics” who see their mission as eradicating religion from public life. In a Sept. 19, 2023 letter, the FFRF demanded that Auburn fire its athletic chaplains and prohibit its coaches from participating in student religious events.
This comes as no surprise. For years, the FFRF has been writing threatening letters to state and local officials, demanding they censor religious expression. They recently insisted that an Alabama school superintendent stop praying in front of the schools in his district. They castigated an Alabama law enforcement department for allowing its officers to place the national motto – “In God We Trust” – on their vehicles.
Sometimes, local officials cave to such demands. But when officials stand firm, the FFRF generally does nothing.
The FFRF is just plain wrong about the constitutionality of the Auburn coaches’ participation in religious activities and is demanding that Auburn University discriminate against religion. If the rally had been a rock concert, a protest against Donald Trump, or a demonstration waving red flags and shouting Marxist slogans, the FFRF would have no objection. But they demand that religious expression be silenced. That is bigotry, pure and simple.
The radical separationist approach to the First Amendment is not the Supreme Court’s position. In Shurtleff v. City of Boston (2022), the Court said that if other organizations are allowed to display their flags during an activity in a city park, churches must be afforded the same right. In Carson v. Makin (2022), the Court held that if the State of Maine provides tuition assistance for private schools, it may not discriminate against parents who send their children to religious private schools.
In a series of decisions beginning with Widmar v. Vincent (1981), Westside Community Board of Education v. Mergens (1990), and Rosenberger v. Rector (1995), the Court has established the policy of “equal access” – that if schools allow secular organizations and activities, they must allow religious activities and organizations on the same basis.
In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022), the Court applied the same principle to Coach Joseph Kennedy’s right to pray after football games. The Auburn coaches and the students who joined with them have an even stronger legal position than Kennedy because they have the added protection of the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment, one of the strongest in the nation.
As for athletic team chaplains – a practice initiated by Coach (now Senator) Tommy Tuberville – the Court upheld chaplains for state legislatures in Marsh v. Chambers (1983). Chaplains for military bases, police and fire departments, hospitals, and Veterans Homes are commonplace. Why not for athletic teams?
Religion has always permeated public life. Even when government was limited, as in the days of our Founders, a complete separation of religion from the public arena was never the Framers’ intent. Now that government also permeates the public arena, the interaction between religion and government is inevitable. Attempting to censor religion from public life is discrimination against religion, which the Court has clearly and repeatedly declared unconstitutional.
Foundation for Moral Law Attorney Talmadge Butts has written to Auburn University in response to the FFRF’s letter, assuring them of the absurdity of the FFRF’s demands and offering the Foundation’s legal services in the unlikely event Auburn is sued.
Meanwhile, let us respond to the FFRF, in the words of Alabama’s motto, Audemus Jura Nostra Defendere – “We Dare Defend Our Rights” … and those of our students.
Colonel Eidsmoe is Professor of Constitutional Law for the Oak Brook College of Law and Government Policy (www.obcl.edu) and Senior Counsel for the Foundation for Moral Law (www.morallaw.org). Those with constitutional concerns are urged to contact the Foundation at (334) 262-1245.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected].
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