The pastor who was serving informally as chaplain of Boise State University’s football team until an atheist advocacy group complained traveled today to Las Vegas on the school president’s dime to be with the team for Saturday’s Mountain West Conference championship game.

University President Marlene Tromp personally paid for the travel of Pastor Mark Thornton. She also launched the new Boise State Free Exercise Fund to support his travel to future road games and made the first donation — $1,000, according to a news release issued Friday.

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Tromp led Boise State to act in clear support of Thornton after two days of reports that he no longer would be called the team’s chaplain, which had been an informal and voluntary title, and that the school had placed new limitations on his access to the team so that all spiritual leaders would have equal access. The school also kept Thornton from traveling to the team’s game at Wyoming on Dec. 12.

The school imposed those new rules because of a complaint sent to the school on Nov. 25 by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The foundation objected after a Deseret News story about a joint, voluntary postgame prayer led by Thornton with players and coaches of both teams after the Nov. 6 game between Boise State and Brigham Young University.

“I was present on the field when our Bronco football team and the BYU Cougars knelt to pray together after a very intense game,” Tromp said in a statement released Friday by the university. “I was so moved by the players’ ability to reach across a divide to one another in a difficult time. We need more love in the world — especially with all the crises we’ve faced this year — and this was a sure sign of it. I will always support Pastor Thornton, who has been a generous friend and spiritual adviser to me as well.”

The foundation’s letter to the school pressured Boise State to remove the chaplain, a demand it has made at dozens of schools across the country over many years. Some schools have capitulated. Others have stood firm. Tromp initially responded by saying that though she was moved by a Deseret News image of Thornton leading the prayer on Nov. 6, “as a public institution, we cannot sponsor or endorse a specific religious adviser.”

In an accompanying statement, the school said it would continue to provide all kinds of support, including spiritual support, to its students.

On Thursday, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty released a statement to the Deseret News characterizing the Freedom From Religion Foundation as bullies.

“We just gave FFRF our annual Ebenezer Award for bullying a middle school in Kansas into ending their Christmas toy drive,” said Luke Goodrich, Becket’s vice president and senior counsel. “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.”

The Deseret News editorial board published an opinion Friday morning saying Boise State and others give in too quickly to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Boise State’s statement on Friday afternoon made what appeared to be its first direct comment about the foundation.

“It’s shameful that parties external to the university are using a photo of student-athlete prayer as an opportunity to attempt to interfere with our student-athletes’ constitutional right to freely practice the religion of their choosing,” the statement said.

The statement also said that Boise State “unequivocally supports and will fiercely defend our students’ right to the free exercise of religion.”

The school made it clear that it never ended its relationship with Thornton.

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“We seriously evaluated the constitutional considerations related to this matter, our legal team made an appropriate response, and we remain committed to protecting all student-athletes’ individual rights under the Free Exercise Clause, including access to Pastor Thornton.”

Thornton still will no longer be called a chaplain, but the school said he will continue to:

— Join the team on the sidelines.

— Attend away games.

— Hold chapel the evening before each game.

— Join student-led prayers before and after each game.

— Lead weekly Bible studies.

— Be available to student-athletes who want to pray with him and seek his counsel.

The statement also said the school was taking action to protect student access to Thornton and other spiritual leaders.

Thornton is a former Boise State player. He did not immediately return a message left for him on Friday afternoon, but he was known to be traveling to the MWC championship game. Boise State will face No. 25 San Jose State at Sam Boyd Stadium at 2:40 p.m. The game will be broadcast on Fox.

“I’m there for the university and love Boise State,” Thornton said in a statement released by the school. “President Tromp has long expressed her gratitude for my support for the team, and I will always be there for them. I feel my influence in their lives helps them grow.”

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