Boise State Gets Rid of Football Team’s Chaplain After Constitutional Concerns December 19, 2020

Boise State Gets Rid of Football Team’s Chaplain After Constitutional Concerns

The Boise State University football team, one of the more prominent programs in the nation, no longer has an official chaplain pushing Christianity on the players after atheists pointed out the legal concerns.

It stemmed from an article in Deseret News last month that including this description of a post-game ritual between Boise State and (private Mormon-affiliated) Brigham Young University:

Pastor Mark Thornton stood in their midst and prayed over them as some players bowed heads and others lifted faces heavenward. Virtually every player from both teams participated. The massive huddle between what normally are on-field rivals covered the logo at midfield and sprawled for 15 yards.

That’s rare, Thornton said.

Prayer is a major part of both programs, according to interviews with BYU players Gunner Romney and Isaac Rex, and Boise State’s Avery Williams. BYU’s postgame prayer usually happens in the locker room and Boise State holds one at midfield each week.

“We’re kind of like this: We started with prayer, we’re going to end with prayer, and we’re going to give the glory to God,” said Thornton, who is the team’s chaplain.

There’s absolutely no reason a public state school should be going through the same religious rituals as a private religious school when the players alone aren’t choosing that option. Boise State shouldn’t have a team chaplain, period.

Earlier this month, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the school’s president calling for an end to this coercion:

“Government chaplains may only exist as an accommodation of a public employee’s religious beliefs when the government makes it difficult or impossible to seek out private ministries,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Boise State University President Marlene Tromp. “Boise State football players have no government-imposed burden on their religion, so there is no need — or legitimate legal reason — for Boise State to provide a chaplain for them.”

The claim that the players can voluntarily seek out Thornton cannot cure this violation, FFRF adds. First, players can seek out religious guidance at any of the other campus ministries or in the local community. The football team does not need to employ or host a volunteer chaplain — indeed it cannot legally do so. Second, voluntariness has never been used to excuse a constitutional violation.

A public university has no business encouraging or endorsing religious rituals, much less organizing them, FFRF emphasizes. Sectarian practices of the type exhibited by Boise State’s chaplaincy program demonstrate the university’s endorsement not only of religion over nonreligion but also of Christianity over other faiths.

The letter worked. At least for now. The school’s attorneys responded to FFRF with an assurance that this was all being taken care of:

“We have been in communication with the Athletic Department to provide some education about this issue and to ensure measures are taken now and in the future to resolve the issue and establish appropriate constitutional boundaries,” the university’s legal counsel recently responded via email. “Mr. Thornton did not travel with the football team to our recent game in Wyoming and the university will no longer include a chaplain in its travel party. Written references to Mr. Thornton as the chaplain of the football team have been or are in the process of being removed and no future references will be made in writing or otherwise.

That’s a good start. It’s not exactly an assurance that Thornton won’t have any formal role with the team, but it’s getting there.

None of that means students can’t seek Thornton out on their own. They’ve always been free to do that. But Thornton can’t — and shouldn’t — have any sort of official role there. He doesn’t belong with the team for the same reason you shouldn’t see a Muslim or Hindu preacher in the locker room.

Naturally, the right-wing Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is flipping out over this perfectly sensible exchange between FFRF and the school, insisting that there’s nothing wrong with forcing Jesus upon the players.

Not so fast says Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which defends the free expression of all faiths in courts across the United States.

“We just gave FFRF our annual Ebenezer Award for bullying a middle school in Kansas into ending their Christmas toy drive,” Goodrich said. “They’ve now moved across the school yard to bully Boise State. Bullies ultimately lose, and FFRF is no exception — as their long record of courtroom losses shows. Many public universities have team chaplains, and it’s not only constitutional but good to accommodate players’ voluntary religious practices in this way.

If Goodrich could point to a non-Christian chaplain at any of these schools — who is part of the team in the same way Thornton was on Boise State’s — then maybe he’d have a point. (They’d all be illegal.) But he doesn’t have a point, because he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and we know that because he didn’t point out any legal problems with what FFRF said.

He’s even lying about the middle school toy drive. FFRF didn’t stop kids from participating in a toy drive. They stopped a school from participating in a Christian ministry’s program designed to convert recipients. Students could easily have participated in a secular version of the same thing. They could’ve joined the Christian program through their families or churches.

Goodrich is either too dumb to understand that distinction, or he thinks the people he’s talking to are too dumb to recognize the difference.

Either way, considering he’s the mouthpiece for the Becket Fund, that tells you a lot about the quality of people they hire.

On that same note, the Becket Fund once gave the same “award” to the governor of Rhode Island for putting up a “Holiday Tree” — because that was apparently the worst case of Christian “persecution” they could find that year.

At least Boise State’s president Marlene Tromp seems to get it:

“Boise State will always support our students’ right to pray, should they wish to do so. As a public institution, we cannot sponsor or endorse a specific religious advisor, but we will continue to create space for all of our students to pursue the spiritual support that is right for them.”

That’s exactly the point FFRF was making. The school can’t promote religion, but students are free to seek it out on their own. It’s not complicated. You have to be willfully ignorant to not understand it… or work for the Becket Fund, I suppose.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Scott for the link)

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