This story has been updated with a response from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Governor Kay Ivey on Friday sent a letter to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), defending two Alabama universities after the FFRF sent letters opposing faculty engagement in religious activities.
The FFRF recently sent letters to two colleges in the state. One was sent to Snead State Community College after staff allegedly complained they felt compelled to participate in prayer during staff events and before meals.
"They feel that they are being forced to bow their head and participate because not doing so would require them to expose their personal beliefs and potentially be subject to retribution," the letter from FFRF read.
Another letter was sent to Auburn University after the university's Unite Auburn event, which featured Christian speakers; afterward, hundreds of students gathered by a nearby body of water where students were baptized. The FFRF claims head football coach Hugh Freeze and other faculty baptized students.
"The event was organized by Chad Prewett, Auburn's assistant men's basketball coach, and his wife Tonya," the FFRF said. "Jeremy Napier, chaplain for the Auburn men's basketball team, was involved in planning the event and admitted that he personally baptized more than 20 students."
The FFRF said university-sponsored religious activity is a violation of the Constitution. In a letter to Auburn president Christopher B. Roberts, FFRF pointed out several religious events held at Auburn over the past several years and asked for change.
In a fiery letter addressed to FFRF co-presidents Dan Barker and Annie Gaylor, Ivey retorted that suppressing faculty's expression of religious expression would violate the First Amendment of the Constitution.
"Suffice it to say, these letters are misleading and misguided," Ivey said. "Here in Alabama, we stand with President Whitmore; Coaches Freeze, Pearl, and Thompson; and the countless other Alabamians who seek to be true to themselves and to God as they live out their lives and seek to do their jobs to the best of their abilities."
She continued, "As Governor of Alabama, I take seriously my responsibility to faithfully execute the laws and that includes safeguarding the religious freedom of all Alabamians, religious and nonreligious alike. But the facts described in your recent letters do not violate anyone's religious liberty. Even according to your own account, these events all involved adults interacting with other adults, and no one faced any threat of adverse consequences for declining to participate."
Ivey concluded her letter by appealing to the state motto, "We dare defend our rights," emphasizing that Alabama would not be intimidated by an out-of-state interest group.
"Mr. Barker and Ms. Gaylor, 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,'" Ivey concluded. "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."
FFRF sent out a letter in response to Ivey, saying they are "dismayed" that the Governor would "belittle one of the primary purposes of the Freedom From Religion Foundation — and the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause."
The organization in part added, "Your remarks denigrating the separation between church and state send an unfortunate official message in support of religion over non-religion by the highest executive office in the state—a message that inevitably excludes many of your constituents and has a proselytizing effect. Choosing yet again to use your office to promote your personal religious beliefs is counter-productive to defending true religious freedom."
"You took an oath of office to 'support, obey, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of Alabama,' not to promote 'worship,' to disseminate your personal religious beliefs through your office or to otherwise evangelize. Please uphold that oath," the letter concluded.
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