A group that champions the separation of church and state is demanding that the University of Colorado censor any “religious exercises” that its new head football coach Deion Sanders may intend to practice with team players and staff.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) claims that Sanders has been engaging in “inappropriate and unconstitutional actions” by “engaging in religious exercises with players and staff members,” the group said in a letter last week to the University of Colorado Boulder Chancellor Phil DiStefano.
Sanders was only named Colorado’s coach in December, but that is the time frame specifically cited in FFRF’s letter.
“It is our understanding that on December 20, 2022, a staff member led other staff members in a Christian prayer to start an official meeting,” FFRF’s letter says in part. “More egregiously, on January 16, 2023, Coach Sanders directed a staff member to lead players and coaches in Christian prayer before a team meeting.”
The letter claims Sanders led the following prayer, among others:
Lord, we thank You for this day, Father, for this opportunity as a group. Father, we thank You for the movement that God has put us in place to be in charge of. We thank You for each player here, each coach, each family. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
The letter also cited numerous legal precedents, including a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, that it said forbids such religious exercises in educational environments, and suggested student-athletes would feel compelled to participate even if it goes against their religious beliefs.
The University of Colorado responded to FFRF’s letter on Feb. 1 and said Sanders has received “training” and “guidance on the boundaries in which players and coaches may and may not engage in religious expression” and claimed, “Coach Sanders was very receptive to this training and came away from it with a better understanding of the University of Colorado’s policies.”
FFRF’s letter’s demands and the subsequent response from the University of Colorado place Sanders in a situation that never arose during his time coaching the football team at Jackson State University, a historically Black college (HBCU) in Mississippi. In fact, Sanders’ devotion to his faith and religion was often a major part of his stated approach to coaching as well as a primary reason he cited for deciding to coach at an HBCU.
In 2020, when Sanders was first named coach at Jackson State, he famously attributed the hiring to “God” and claimed it was “a match made in heaven.”
“This is a God move,” Sanders said at the time. “When they pulled up today I said, you know it’s gotta be God for me to leave all this.”
About one year later, following his hospitalization for a health setback, Sanders credited his Christian faith for his recovery and return to the football sidelines.
“I can’t walk on my own and people have to help me get in and out of everything, and I say, ‘Lord, I thank you,’” Sanders said in that instance. “You say, ‘Prime, how can you say Lord I thank you and it’s hard for you to help yourself?’ Because I’m alive.”
While those instances were not similar in nature to the complaints expressed by FFRF, Sanders also led his Jackson State players in prayer.
After Jackson State was ranked among the top 10 in the national Football Championship Subdivision poll, he gathered his team and encouraged the players to pray with him.
“Repeat after me,” Sanders told his players. “Lord, I love you. Lord, I thank you. Lord, I magnify you. Lord, I glorify you. Without You, I wouldn’t be a thing! A thing! A thing!”
In all of those instances at Jackson State, Sanders was never publicly reprimanded or forced to undergo training in response to incorporating religion into his approach fore coaching.
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