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Chaplains Under Attack at University of Washington

We’re well aware of the assault on religious liberty here in Washington. And as you may have guessed, the battle is just getting started.

In a recent letter, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) confronted the University of Washington over their use of chaplains in the school’s athletic programs, claiming that the use of chaplains violates the rights of student-athletes who don’t wish to participate in religious activity. “It makes no difference,” FFRF said, “if the chaplain is unofficial, not school-sponsored, or a volunteer, because chaplains are given access to the team as a means for coaches to impose religion, usually Christianity, on their players.”

As reported by the Washington Times, similar letters were also sent to the presidents and chancellors of 24 other universities. Despite the fact that none of those public universities have policies making counseling, prayer, or any other religious activity compulsory, they argued that the existence of the chaplaincy is an endorsement of religion, and is therefore a violation of the rights of nonbelievers. A report released by FFRF in conjunction with these letters claims that, because “student athletes are uniquely susceptible to coercion from coaches,” it is unlawful for schools or coaches to offer chaplaincy services out of concern for a coach’s “control [over] players’ prospects for future careers, in professional sports and otherwise.”

This isn’t the first time the Freedom from Religion Foundation has attacked religious liberty on the University of Washington’s campus. In 1994, Foundation member Matthew Barry — a UW graduate student at the time — asked the University to remove “Christian Science treatment” as a means of treatment covered under the University’s student and employee healthcare policy. They claimed the term “Christian Science treatment” was synonymous with prayer or Christian counseling. Without a lawsuit even being filed, the University gave in to Barry’s request without putting up a fight.

FPIW Executive Director Joseph Backholm said Wednesday that FFRF’s argument was just more evidence of general hostility to religious belief. “It is difficult to see how one student’s access to a chaplain infringes on the rights of other students who have no interest in a chaplain. If coaches are forcing players to engage in religious activity, that’s a legitimate legal problem. However, making an elective service available to students is not a violation of the rights of those students who have no interest in the service.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom has responded to FFRF’s most recent letter with an excellent legal analysis, including a defense of the First Amendment rights of students at the University of Washington.

The letter highlights the fact that courts have approved state funding of chaplains in the military, prisons, hospitals, police departments, airports, and the legislature. As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in one case, “The people of the United States did not adopt the Bill of Rights in order to strip the public square of every last shred of public piety.” (Chaudhuri v. Tennessee)

They remind all the universities targeted by the FFRF that the Constitution does not require the state to be the enemy of religion. In fact, a University does have an obligation to make religious accommodations for their students, both on and off the field.

Despite the name of the organization involved, the First Amendment always has guaranteed the freedom of religion, not the freedom from it.

FPIW will continue to monitor the situation at UW and keep you updated. We encourage each of you to continue the discussion with your friends, families, and communities. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow FPIW Executive Director Joseph Backholm (@JosephBackholm), FPIW (@FPIW), and Alliance Defending Freedom (@AllianceDefends) for up-to-the-minute updates on Twitter!

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