ACLU wants university coach to stop praying with his team

Tuesday, March 7, 2000

A national religious-based group has come to the defense of the University of Colorado men's basketball head coach who is under attack by a state civil rights group for leading his players in Christian prayer.

The Rutherford Institute, based in Charlottesville, Va., has demanded that the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado back off its legal threat against the University of Colorado and basketball coach Ricardo Patton.

In late February, Judd Golden, chair of the ACLU's Boulder chapter, sent a letter to the university's athletic director complaining that Patton and his assistant coaches were violating a school policy prohibiting officially organized prayer on campus.

According to Golden's complaint, Patton and his assistant coaches join hands with players and form a circle to recite a Christian prayer in violation of a 1985 school policy, which was created with the ACLU's help, that says, “Coaches should not organize or conduct religious activities, including promotion of prayer or Bible readings by players or coaches.”

The school's Department of Intercollegiate Athletics policy statement says the university “respects and supports the right of all individuals to make their own personal choices as to their religious preferences,” but as “part of a publicly funded state institution of higher education,” it recognizes “its responsibility to pursue and maintain a course of neutrality toward religion.”

Golden, in his Feb. 23 letter to university officials, accused Patton of continuing “to organize and promote prayers for his team and coaching staff, defying University policy and the First Amendment.” Patton has coached the Big 12 Buffalos for just over four years.

Unless Patton and other coaches ceased joining the players in prayer, the state ACLU suggested, a lawsuit was possible.

“Team prayers organized by the head coach send an unmistakable and inappropriate message to players, coaches, potential recruits, walk-ons, students, alumni and Colorado taxpayers that you should pray if you want to fully participate in the CU basketball program,” Golden said.

Dick Tharp, the university's athletic director, did not return a call regarding the ACLU's complaint. In a prepared statement, however, Tharp said his department would examine the situation.

John Whitehead, founder and president of the Rutherford Institute, however, does not believe Patton or his players are violating the separation of church and state. He has asked the ACLU to stop its legal threats. Whitehead also told Golden that Patton had contacted the Rutherford Institute and that “any further communication regarding this matter is directed to The Rutherford Institute.”

“Because the basketball players are adults, participation is voluntary, and the players lead prayer, neither Coach Patton nor the University of Colorado are in violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause,” Whitehead wrote in a March 3 letter to the Boulder ACLU and the university. “Therefore, we demand that you cease and desist threatening Coach Patton and the University of Colorado for Coach Patton's participation in prayer with the men's basketball team and that any further communication regarding this matter is directed to The Rutherford Institute.”

Golden, however, said that after talking with attorneys for the university this morning he was told they had never heard of the Rutherford Institute and that the university had not hired the group.

“First, the Rutherford Institute does not represent the university,” Golden said. “Second, we have been involved with this issue since 1984 and it has involved negotiations with the university about religious neutrality within the athletic department.”

Golden says the policy is only intended to make sure that prayer is not organized and sanctioned by school officials and is not intended to impinge on players' individual rights to religious expression.

“Our point has been, that based on the history at this university, there has been a significant problem with coaches establishing organized religious practices, which have excluded those don't agree with those practices,” he said. “We believe that all religious people or those who are not religious have the right to attend a public university and fully participate in all programs without having to make decisions to pray or not pray.”

Last October, the Ohio ACLU and a public school district settled a federal lawsuit after a high school football coach vowed to stop praying with his players after football games. Federal courts, however, have ruled in several First Amendment cases involving prayer and public schools that students at secondary public education institutions are more impressionable and thus more susceptible to organized prayer than those in public higher education.