Colorado coach Deion Sanders at the center of a church-state debate

by Jacob Fuller

Curt Flewelling, FISM News

NFL Hall of Fame player and new University of Colorado head football coach Deion Sanders is in the middle of a battle over prayer at the public university.

Sanders — famous for his incredible speed and flashy style that made most observers into either instant fans or haters — is a born-again Christian who has routinely prayed with his athletes in the past. This behavior caught the attention of Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) staff attorney Christopher Line, prompting him to fire off a “warning shot” in the form of a letter to the chancellor of the university.

The letter urges Chancellor Phil DiStefano to make sure that Sanders be “educated as to his constitutional duties under the Establishment Clause.” The letter also demands that the university provide FFRF with written notification that the university is taking actions to ensure that Sanders “will not continue to proselytize to his players or subject them to coercive team prayers.”

Executive Vice Chancellor Patrick O’Rourke wasted no time assuring Line that the university would make sure that Sanders completely understands the actions that players and coaches may and may not engage in as it pertains to religious expression.

O’Rourke conveyed to FFRF that, “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.”


The plot thickened as The First Liberty Institute (FLI) took issue with FFRF’s claim that Sanders could potentially use the football program to “promote his religion.” They reached out to Chancellor DiStefano by letter with their concerns.

“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 FLI letter to the chancellor states.

Coach Sanders does not lose his constitutional right to free exercise of religion simply because he is an employee at CU. ‘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.

The First Liberty Institute asserts that CU is not merely “educating” the coach but rather “intimidating” him, by forcing him to keep his religious beliefs under his hat. FLI says this behavior amounts to unconstitutional censorship.

Should Deion Sanders continue to engage in simple prayer with his athletes, he is on pretty solid legal ground. FLI successfully represented Coach Joe Kennedy before the Supreme Court as the coach was unjustly fired for praying with his players after games.

In the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District case, the court ruled in favor of the coach in a 6-3 decision. In his majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch dismissed the school district’s assertion that everything teachers and coaches say in the workplace is government speech subject to government control.

“By such logic, the government could ‘fire a Muslim teacher for wearing a headscarf in the classroom or prohibit a Christian aide from praying quietly over her lunch in the cafeteria,’” Gorsuch wrote.

Amendment I to the Constitution of the United States of America states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”