‘This is America, Not North Korea’: Anti-Religion Group Has No Grounds for Threat After Coaches Help Baptize 200 Students at Auburn
Just days after hundreds of college students were baptized in one night after a powerful time of worship at Auburn University, an atheistic, anti-Christian group was quick to attack and claim a violation of the First Amendment. As always, they’re wrong.
Twisting the First Amendment — Again
The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), a self-proclaimed “state/church watchdog” sent a “warning” letter to Auburn officials, calling the public baptisms in a lake on campus an “abuse of power” since some university officials, like head football coach Hugh Freeze, assisted in baptisms after “Unite Auburn,” a private worship event. FFRF called on the university to take “immediate action” to educate coaches on their “constitutional duties” and said they should not participate in any student-led religious activities.
As we’ve seen before, FFRF is once again attempting to twist the First Amendment Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution and use it to infringe on Christians practicing their faith. My message to FFRF: “This is America, not North Korea.”
Keep in mind that this was a private gathering, not a university-sanctioned event. The Constitution protects the free exercise of religion, such as through public baptism, for all individuals, regardless of their employer, at private events. While the distinction of a private event is critically important for the Constitution’s protection, FFRF’s mission is to ban virtually all expressions of faith, even though the government has no place dictating to state employees when and where it’s acceptable to exercise their religious liberty at a private gathering.
The Free Exercise of Religion
I was pleased to see Alabama Governor Kay Ivey stand up against FFRF in a letter, saying that “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.”
She said Alabama would not be “intimidated by out-of-state interest groups dedicated to destroying our nation’s religious heritage.”
Just as the government cannot restrict a high school football coach from privately praying on the football field as we saw with Coach Joe Kennedy in the Kennedy v. Bremerton case in 2022, the government also cannot restrict a college football coach, like Auburn’s Hugh Freeze, from practicing his faith through baptizing college students at a private event.
The First Amendment assures that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Contrary to FFRF’s false narrative, the phrase “Separation of Church and State” is found nowhere in our founding documents. Thomas Jefferson penned the phrase “wall of separation between church and State” in a letter to reassure Danbury Baptists that the United States was a refuge for religious freedom when they expressed concern over the possibility of federal-mandated religion.
The wonderful thing about America is that the free exercise of religion is protected for all. Employees and students at a public university have the liberty to participate in religious expression or choose not to participate. Educators (and coaches) are not expected to “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
The United States of America was founded as a bastion for religious liberty, and we must preserve our First Amendment rights against these frequent attacks.
We Must Preserve Our First Amendment Rights
Last year, I argued a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to allow Boston resident Hal Shurtleff and his Christian civic organization, Camp Constitution, to fly the Christian flag on the Boston City Hall flagpole after Boston brazenly censored Christian viewpoints.
Boston had previously approved 284 flag raisings by private organizations, but in 2017, Hal Shurtleff and Camp Constitution’s request to fly the Christian flag celebrating Constitution Day was denied due to unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. Amazingly, Boston censored the flag because of one word on the application form — the word Christian. Had Hal referred to the same flag with a non-religious modifier (anything other than “Christian”), Boston would allow it.
In Shurtleff v. City of Boston, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in favor of flying the Christian flag. Last August, I was proud to celebrate this victory and join Hal Shurtleff in raising the Christian flag on the flagpole in Boston City Hall Plaza. Of course, this irritates groups like FFRF because they prefer absolute censorship of anything deemed religious.
The Soul of Our Nation
I am thankful the Supreme Court sided with the Constitution and religious liberty, ruling that the government cannot restrict a flag solely because of a Christian viewpoint. Religious liberty is an unalienable right that comes from God and is preserved by the First Amendment. If we cede ground on religious liberty, we will lose the soul of our nation.
Whether it’s baptizing students on campus at a private event, kneeling on a football field to pray after a game, or raising a Christian flag on a public flagpole open to all applicants, the free exercise of religion is a fundamental right of all Americans, guaranteed in the Constitution. Auburn University should be commended, not warned, for allowing the free exercise of religion on university grounds during a private event.
Mat Staver is the Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel and Chairman of Liberty Counsel Action.