Coach Deion Sanders has gotten his new employer involved in a religious freedom dispute less than three months after joining the University of Colorado football program. Two atheist organizations have gotten in touch with the school concerning Sanders’ religious practices since January. One claimed that by praying with athletes, he and some of his employees were breaking the law, while the other forewarned the school that doing so might violate Sanders’ religious freedom.
The incident started in January when Sanders’ practice of frequently bringing up Christianity during school events was brought to the University of Colorado’s attention by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. The group claimed that it had received calls from several people in Colorado who were aware of — and worried about — the pressure put on athletes to pray at team meetings.
“The Supreme Court has regularly struck down school-sponsored proselytizing in public schools,” said the foundation’s staff attorney, Christopher Line, in the letter.
Line came to the conclusion that Sanders had violated the guarantees of religious freedom in the Constitution. Sanders must be made aware that he has been hired as a football coach and not a minister, he said, and the University of Colorado must take measures to protect its student athletes.
The school responded a week later, noting the actions it had done to allay the worries of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. According to Patrick T. O’Rourke, the school’s executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer, Sanders met with the office of institutional equity and compliance to discuss the circumstances under which coaches and athletes may express their religious beliefs.
Coach Sanders was highly responsive to the instruction and left with a clearer grasp of both the Establishment Clause’s requirements and the rules of the University of Colorado, according to O’Rourke. He also said that the Freedom from Religion Foundation should refer any future inquiries from Colorado football players to the Office of Institutional Equality and Compliance.
If school administrators believed the issue was settled at that moment, they were wrong. A different organization only recently contacted the University of Colorado, alleging that the university had improperly restricted Sanders’ religious speech.
“We are writing to address false comments made by the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) regarding the restrictions placed by the First Amendment on the religious expression of public school personnel. “Public universities like CU may not target Coach Sanders (or other members of the football staff) for exercising constitutional rights on campus,” read the letter from First Liberty Institute, a law firm specializing in religious freedom cases. “The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that public school employees may engage in religious expression and exercise.
The letter makes numerous allusions to Kennedy v. Bremerton, a 2022 Supreme Court decision about a high school football coach who fought for the right to pray at the 50-yard line following games. In a 6-3 decision in his favor in June, the Supreme Court held that coaches are permitted to pray privately even when students and other onlookers are present.
According to Supreme Court precedent, public school personnel are free to profess and practice their religion, according to the First Liberty letter. Finally, it requested that Colorado officials permit Sanders to use his right to religious expression and offer First Liberty further details regarding the school’s policy on such rights. The firm explicitly requested a copy of the university’s nondiscrimination policy as well as all paperwork associated with the complaint made by the Freedom from Religion Foundation.