(Joe Mueller, The Center Square) The University of Colorado’s legal department is reviewing a letter that’s part of a war of words between two advocacy groups clashing over the Christian prayers of football coach Deion Sanders.
The First Liberty Institute, which advocates for religious freedom, sent a letter and demands to the university on Tuesday in response to a January letter and demands from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
“As we’ve just recently received it, our legal department is reviewing, and we don’t have comment at this time,” Steve Hurlbert, director of communications and chief spokesperson at the University of Colorado Boulder, wrote in an email to The Center Square.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote Phil DiStefano, chancellor of the university, in January about concerns with Sanders’ “promotion of religion and potential religious coercion through the football program.”
Sanders, 55, was hired by the university in December after he led Jackson State, a historically black university, to a 12-1 record in 2022. Colorado was 1-11 last season.
The letter, signed by staff attorney Christopher Line, stated many concerned Coloradans complained to the organization, which states on its website it promotes “the constitutional principle of separation of state and church” and educates the public “on matters relating to nontheism.”
The three-page letter requested Sanders be “educated as to his constitutional duties under the Establishment Clause” and also send notification in writing of the actions the university is taking to ensure Sanders “will not continue to proselytize to his players or subject them to coercive team prayers.”
On Jan. 31, Patrick O’Rourke, the university’s executive vice chancellor, wrote to Line and stated the university is committed to non-discrimination.
“Last Friday, the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance personally met with Coach Sanders to provide guidance on the non-discrimination policies, including guidance on the boundaries in which players and coaches may and may not engage in religious expression,” O’Rourke wrote. “Coach Sanders was very receptive to this training and came away from it with a better understanding of the University of Colorado’s policies and the requirements of the Establishment Clause.”
On Tuesday, the First Liberty Institute wrote a six-page letter to DiStefano claiming “recent unconstitutional censorship” of Sanders’ religious expression at the university.
The institute represented Joe Kennedy after he lost his job as a high school football coach in Washington state for kneeling and praying with players at midfield after games. In a 6-3 decision last year, the U.S. Supreme Court found the Bremerton School District violated Kennedy’s constitutional rights. O’Rourke mentioned Kennedy’s U.S. Supreme Court case in his letter to Line.
“We write to correct the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s (FFRF’s) misstatements regarding the requirements imposed by the First Amendment on public school employees’ religious expression,” the letter, signed by counsel Keisha Russell, stated.
First Liberty Institute sent a Colorado Open Records Act request to the university for any and all communications from July 2022 to the present concerning Sanders, DiStefano, O’Rourke, FFRF’s Line and Athletic Director Rick George.
“Coach Sanders does not lose his constitutional right to free exercise of religion simply because he is an employee at CU,” Russell wrote. “Yet, giving ‘guidance on the boundaries in which players and coaches may and may not engage in religious expression’ presents a risk of state-sponsored censorship of Coach Sanders’ private speech.”