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Boise State keeps team chaplain away from game after atheists protest postgame prayer with BYU

Becket Fund for Religious Liberty calls Freedom From Religion Foundation a bully for complaint about chaplain

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Both BYU and Boise State gather at midfield for a prayer following the game at Albertsons Stadium in Boise on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. BYU won 51-17.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Boise State University’s football program no longer has a team chaplain after a complaint by an atheist advocacy group following a voluntary postgame prayer involving some team members and players and coaches from Brigham Young University.

“Public school athletic teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain because public schools may not advance or promote religion,” a staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote in a Nov. 25 letter to Boise State.

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.”

Pastor Mark Thornton had been serving as the team’s informal, volunteer chaplain. No official position existed, Boise State administrators said. Himself a former player, Thornton will continue to be available to the team but he will not be called a chaplain and will have new limitations on his access. He did not travel with the team for the school’s game at Wyoming last weekend, according to the Idaho Statesman, which first reported the FFRF’s letter. The Broncos won the game, 17-9, to improve to 5-1 this season.

Boise State’s only loss was to BYU in a game played in Boise on Nov. 6. After the game, Thornton invited BYU coach Kalani Sitake and BYU’s players to join a voluntary prayer at midfield. The Deseret News detailed how the prayer happened and what it meant to players in a story on Nov. 12.

The story was accompanied by images of Thornton standing among dozens of kneeling players from both teams on the blue artificial turf of Boise State’s Albertson’s Stadium.

“I was very moved by the image in Deseret News’s story,” Boise State University President Marlene Tromp said in an email to the Deseret News on Thursday. “My spiritual life is very important to me, and I feel strongly that students should be able to seek the spiritual support that is meaningful to them.

“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.”

The FFRF cited the Deseret News story in its letter to Tromp.

“Claiming that the players can voluntarily seek out Thornton cannot cure this violation,” the foundation’s attorney claimed in the letter to the school. “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.”

The organization also claimed that government chaplains may exist only to accommodate a public employee’s religious beliefs when the government makes it difficult or impossible to seek out private ministries.

U.S. courts have permitted chaplains in the military and in prisons. In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of legislative chaplains, and the U.S. House of Representatives has had a chaplain since 1789.

In 2015, the FFRF sent letters to 25 college football programs demanding they remove their team chaplains. One of those schools was Clemson University. It reviewed its football program’s actions and found them compliant with the law, according to a Sports Illustrated article published last year. Clemson maintained a volunteer chaplain at least through 2019. Messages left for Clemson officials on Thursday were not returned immediately.

In the Sports Illustrated article, Richard Garnett, a Notre Dame law professor and First Amendment expert, said courts infrequently rule on freedom from religion cases at the college level. Courts generally consider college students to be adults who can discern between what is state-sponsored prayer and what is not, he said.

The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative, Christian-based organization, sent a rebuttal to the FFRF’s 2015 demands for schools to remove their chaplains.

“University students understand that they will be exposed to a variety of religious and nonreligious views on campus,” the rebuttal said. “Sports team chaplaincies pose no threat to the rights of university students to hold their own religious views, any more than does graduation prayer, or for that matter, a professor’s avowed atheism. The Establishment Clause does not compel the expulsion of sports team chaplains who serve voluntarily to meet the spiritual needs of student athletes, any more than the Establishment Clause requires the razing of university chapels that exist to meet similar needs.”

Boise State issued a statement.

At Boise State, the wellbeing of our students is a high priority. Attending to our students as whole people not only respects them as individuals, but also fosters greater student success. This is true for our student-athletes as well. In this very challenging year, we want to ensure that we always make available a broad range of options, so that our students can seek the support that works best for them. We strive to ensure access to many kinds of support, including spiritual support, for our students.

Pastor Thornton is a former Bronco student-athlete and has been a proud supporter of Boise State football for many years, the university wrote in a statement. He has been very generous in his support of our students and, any student who wishes, can still seek his spiritual counsel and care. The university encourages students to pursue the support that is best for them.

Thornton told the Deseret News about the nature of his prayer after the Boise State-BYU game.

“We prayed for the guys who got hurt on both sides of the field, just for a quick recovery for them,” he said. “We blessed BYU and just prayed that they would continue to have a great season, and that we would continue to have a great season, as well.”