MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WIAT) — On Sept. 13, the Freedom From Religion Foundation publicized a press release that said a watchdog at Snead State Community College had reported “that President Joe Whitmore has been imposing his personal religious beliefs on Snead State employees and treating Snead State as a Christian college.”
In a letter to Whitmore, the FFRF said the complainant reported employees have been required to partake in Christian prayer before meals and at staff events and that each year Whitmore presented a “guiding bible verse” for the staff. The complainant said this left them feeling “uncomfortable and offended.”
The FFRF asked the college immediately cease holding prayer at staff events and that Whitmore halt his practice of including religious messages in official communications.
“A clear abuse of authority seems to be happening here — and that, too, in such a sensitive, private sphere as religion,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor in a press release. “This has to end immediately.”
Later, on Thursday, the FFRF sent out a press release stating “Auburn University must put a stop to religion in its athletic programs.”
The release and letter to President Christopher Roberts was in reference to the baptisms that took place on Auburn’s campus at the Red Barn following a religious worship event through Unite Auburn.
The FFRF said a watchdog had received reports that Auburn football coach Hugh Freeze, men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl and baseball coach Butch Thompson were “involved in promoting a religious worship service to students on Sept. 12 called ‘Unite Auburn,'” during which Freeze baptized a student athlete.
“Auburn University is a public university, not a religious one,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote in the letter to Roberts. “It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for university employees to use their university position to organize, promote or participate in a religious worship event.”
In response to these two letters, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey released the following statement on Friday:
Dear Mr. Barker and Ms. Gaylor:
I write in response to two letters your organization recently sent to institutions of higher learning in Alabama – one complaining to the president of Snead State Community College has led staff in prayer and challenged them with scripture; the other complaining that coaches at Auburn University helped promote an after-hours worship service for college students called “Unite Auburn.”
Suffice it to say, these letters are misleading and misguided. Here in Alabama, we stand with President Whitmore; Coaches Freeze, Pearl and Thompson; and the countless other Alabamians who seek to be true to themselves – and to God – as they live out their lives and seek to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.
As Governor of Alabama, I take seriously my responsibility to faithfully execute the laws – and that includes safeguarding the religious freedom of all Alabamians, religious and nonreligious alike. But the facts described in your recent letters do not violate anyone’s religious liberty. Even according to your own account, these events all involved adults interacting with other adults, and no one faced any threat of adverse consequences for declining to participate.
What is more, requiring college officials to entirely remove faith from their lives could well violate those officials’ own religious freedom. After all, the First Amendment protects the “free exercise” of religion just as much as it prohibits government establishment of religion.
In my view, we should be more welcoming, not less, to expressions of faith, and society would be worse off were we to purge religion from our public institutions. Over time, faith has been a force for good in this world, leading to countless scientific discoveries, the righting of countless injustices and the founding of countless orphanages, hospitals and other charitable and educational institutions. (Indeed, Snead State itself was founded as a religious school.) Prayer, in particular, allows us to reflect upon shared ideals and common goals; it helps us acknowledge our shortcomings; and it fosters change for the better – as individuals and collectively.
Mr. Barker and Ms. Gaylor, the last thing I want is for Alabama college and university officials to be taking legal advice from an organization that does not recognize these points and whose self-avowed purpose is to promote a strict view of so-called “separation of church and state.” I hope you will someday come to know what makes the State of Alabama such a special place for so many of us. In the meantime, please understand that our motto is “We dare defend our rights.” As Governor, I can assure you that we will not be intimidated by out-of-state interest groups dedicated to destroying our nation’s religious heritage.Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey