Atheists Warn Football Coaches and Chaplains Not to 'Instill Christianity in Vulnerable Young Men'

By Susan Jones | August 24, 2015 | 11:35 AM EDT

Former Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow kneels in prayer. (AP File Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - An atheist group is demanding that publicly funded universities take immediate steps to bar Christian coaches and chaplains from "converting football fields into mission fields."

"The words of coaches and chaplains make clear that their purpose is to instill Christianity in vulnerable young men," the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) says in a new report, titled "Pray to Play."

"Public universities and their employees cannot endorse, promote, or favor religion," the report states. "Yet, many football coaches at public universities bring in chaplains -- often from their own church or even members of their own family -- to prey on and pray with students, with no regard for the rights of those students or the Constitution.

"These coaches are converting playing fields into mission fields and public universities are doing nothing to halt this breach of trust. They are failing their student athletes."

FFRF says the purpose of its report is to "expose this unconstitutional system, encourage universities to fix it, and stimulate further efforts to protect students’ rights of conscience."

The report quotes various team chaplains to make its point that public universities are bankrolling Christian ministers who mix the roles of "coach, parent and minister, all while promoting their personal religion to athletes."

FFRF says this is a problem, even if team chaplains aren't on the school's payroll:

"No matter how chaplaincies are set up, the chaplains are treated as an official part of the university and team. Chaplains often attend team events, host team chapel services, lead teams in prayers, travel with the team, patrol the sideline, wear team apparel, have special access to coaches and players, help with recruiting, and have athletic department offices."

Moreover, the report says most universities do not have policies regarding chaplains: "They set no limitations, guidelines, or expectations for their coaches or chaplains regarding religious activities. Chaplains who appear to be school employees, are given access as school employees, and act as school employees inflict the same legal liability on schools as any other employee."

FFRF’s report cautions that it is in the "best interest" of public universities to adopt policies that protect student athletes from discrimination and unlawful religious coercion.

In an August 18 letter to the University of Missouri chancellor, FFRF warned of the "legal liability that the University of Missouri exposes itself to by allowing its chaplaincy to continue," adding, "it is not a matter of if but when an issue will arise from this entanglement."

To prevent lawsuits, FFRF recommends that public universities adopt a "model policy" in which a "character coach" or a "player development coach" replaces the chaplain in instilling secular values such as respect, perseverance, humility, sportsmanship, and teamwork.

FFRF said any character development coach would be "explicitly prohibited from promoting a particular religious viewpoint, pressuring student-athletes to choose religion over non-religion, or directly or indirectly coercing student-athletes to participate in any type of religious activity."

Qualified candidates should have training in psychology, psychiatry, sports psychology, secular therapy, or a substantially equivalent field. FFRF insists that mere "divinity or religious counseling experience" does not qualify a person to hold the character development position.