Now that outspoken Christian Deion Sanders is head football coach at the University of Colorado Boulder, advocacy groups are advising school administrators about his faith-based actions. Sanders, known as Coach Prime, talks often about his faith and leads players and staff in prayer.
That led to a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which says Sanders must “cease imposing religion.” The secular group wrote to CU officials in January, telling them that “school-sponsored proselytizing” is not constitutionally allowed.
Deion Sanders Engages in ‘Religious Coercion,’ Says FFRF
On its website, FFRF notes: “Sanders’ team is full of young and impressionable student athletes who would not risk giving up their scholarship, giving up playing time, or losing a good recommendation from the coach by speaking out or voluntarily opting out of his unconstitutional religious activities—even if they strongly disagreed with his beliefs. That’s why Sanders’ use of his coaching position to promote Christianity amounts to religious coercion.”
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor says, “There is no doubting the sporting accomplishments of Deion Sanders, but that doesn’t give him the right to force his religion upon student athletes at a public university.”
In a response to FFRF, CU Executive Vice Chancellor and COO Patrick O’Rourke says the university has met with Sanders “to provide guidance on the non-discrimination policies, including guidance on the boundaries in which players may and may not engage in religious expression.”
Religious Liberty Group: Coach’s Prayers Are Protected Speech
First Liberty Institute (FLI), an organization that defends religious freedoms, also wrote to CU officials, providing its take on protected speech. Counsel Keisha Russell explains why FFRF’s advice is incorrect and warns university officials against engaging in “state-sponsored censorship of Coach Sanders’ private speech.”
In a letter to CU, Russell writes that Sanders “does not lose his constitutional right to free exercise of religion simply because he is an employee at CU.” Citing U.S. Supreme Court cases such as Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022), she writes, “First Amendment protections extend to both public employees and students, ‘neither of whom shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.’”
Although private speech such as praying does not violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, says Russell, “censorship of such speech can quickly become a violation of the Free Exercise Clause.”