The close ties between Georgia’s two top college football teams and their chaplains may well violate the separation of church and state, but removing such beloved religious leaders could present formidable challenges, legal experts said Friday.
In a report, The Freedom from Religion Foundation called for the ouster of football chaplains at about 20 public schools, including the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. A cherished part of Southern football culture, the chaplains are seen as spiritual mentors, popular with many school officials, boosters and players.
But the foundation asserted they allow “football coaches to impose their personal religion on players.”
UGA, which defends its practice as legal, was targeted as a major offender by the foundation, which also accused football coach Mark Richt of using his “public office” to raise money for the group that provides team chaplain Kevin “Chappy” Hynes.
UGA said its use of a team chaplain passes constitutional muster because the position does not use taxpayer money. The UGA Athletic Association, a private nonprofit corporation, runs the football program.
“The local chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes provides optional chaplain services for student-athletes that wish to participate. Neither the University nor the Athletic Association finances these activities, and they are completely voluntary for the student-athletes,” UGA Director of Athletics Greg McGarity said in a statement Friday.
At Georgia Tech, chaplain Derrick Moore is treated like a member of the coaching staff, leading pre-game prayers that blend football with religion, the foundation said.
His prayer before a 2011 game against Clemson began: “As we get ready to go into attack mode, God, be with these boys.” At the conclusion of the prayer, Moore wields his signature sledgehammer.
Several online videos shows Moore in the team locker room. Moore’s presence at the invitation of this public university signals its unconstitutional endorsement of his message, the foundation said.
“Inviting him into the locker room does send a message of endorsement,” said Emory University law professor Mark Goldfeder.
Regarding UGA, the foundation report, called Pray to Play, also noted the chaplain is the coach’s brother-in-law. UGA did not respond to a query by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution regarding its policy on the use of employees’ relatives.
The foundation report, widely reported in the media, ignited a firestorm Friday between skeptics who believe the programs should bench the chaplain and the school’s football purists, who are passionate about their team and its traditions.
“Considering UGA is a public university, any staff leading religious services is a violation of the law,” said April Ellerbusch, who commented online.
A posting on AJC Facebook drew some 70 comments within an hour, dominated by those defending the school and chaplain. Supporters say team chaplains help players in ways that transcend pre-game pep talks. They become mentors that help students traverse the challenges of youth and become better adults.
“As long as the players are not being coerced into participating, it’s fine,” said the Rev. Robert Harrell, a pastor at St. Luke Lutheran Church in McDonough and “the proud parent” of a UGA senior. “As long as they have an out, it’s fine.”
Some say the report reflects an ongoing onslaught against religion.
“I am sick to death of those who do not want religion in their lives trying to remove it from others’ lives,” said Terri Patillo.
The report also criticized the use of a football chaplain at the Georgia Tech, noting that Moore was paid $7,500 under his contract for the 2014 season, and has received more than $43,000 from the school since 2011.
Georgia Tech officials said the compensation is provided by the independent, nonprofit organization called The Georgia Tech Athletic Association.
“No funds from either the state of Georgia or Georgia Tech are used to compensate the consultant,” said the school in a statement.
Alex Luchenitser, an attorney with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the schools should permanently oust their team chaplains. He said players who do not want to participate in these prayers often feel pressured to do so.
“Football is a highly coercive environment,” Luchenitser said. “Any football player knows that if he displeases the coach in some way, he may lose playing time.”
Whether or not team chaplains receive school money, the legal line can be blurred when they have offices on campus and receive perks such as season tickets and sideline passes, all of which the report says were provided to the UGA chaplain, Goldfeder said.
When the UGA coach helped raise funds for the chaplain position in a Bulldog’s building “it gives the impression that the chaplaincy is a team function and that it is part of the team’s identity,” he added.
The report said Richt helped raised funds for the chaplain position and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes during a 2014 event in a building that serves as the headquarters of the UGA Athletic Association.
Goldfeder didn’t think UGA should abolish the team chaplain position, but he believes the school probably needs to be more careful to avoid any perception of impropriety. If players want to pray with a chaplain before a game, they should be told they have a choice and the coach should not be present, he said.
While the report asserts that these schools, the majority located in the South, could be vulnerable to a legal challenge, the courts have been unpredictable on issues regarding prayer in public institutions.
“They tend to be conservative about removing things that are part of the popular culture,” Goldfeder said.
Moreover, some organizations find ways around any bans. When the courts eliminated the practice of a school-sanctioned prayer before high school football games, some schools had cheerleaders lead the crowd in a “cheer” of the Lord’s Prayer.
The intersection of sports and religion is nothing new in Georgia, particularly at UGA. In 2004 a UGA cheerleading coach was fired after she allegedly used religious criteria, such as Bible study attendance, to keep a Jewish cheerleader off the premier cheer squad.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent letters to UGA in 2001 and 2003 protesting “numerous troubling practices of the football program, all of which constitute inappropriate incorporation of religion into several aspects of the program.”
Americans United took coach Richt to task. An outspoken Christian, Richt has led the Bulldogs in prayer before games.
Those and other activities create, “a pervasively religious atmosphere for team members, which sends a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, ” Americans United legal director Ayesha Khan claimed in a 2003 letter.
Richt said at the time that chapel service, Bible studies and prayers are optional for all players. “I certainly don’t take roll or anything like that, ” he said.
Georgia also had a long tradition of broadcasting Christian prayers before public high school games. But that ended after a marching band member at Douglas County High School sued in 1986. Saxophone player Doug Jager refused to take off his band hat and bow his head for the invocation, a school tradition since 1947.
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Staff writer Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this report.