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Ole Miss, MSU Under Investigation by FFRF for Football Chaplains

John Powell, Ole Miss' chaplain and a Fellowship of Christian Athletes staff member, leads a service for athletes in the football meeting room at the Manning Center.
John Powell, Ole Miss’ chaplain and a Fellowship of Christian Athletes staff member, leads a service for athletes in the football meeting room at the Manning Center.

The University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University are being investigated by an atheist group from Madison, Wisconsin, named the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
imageOn Sept. 3, the FFRF submitted an open records request for emails between athletes and football chaplain John Powell, university rules and documents on staff- and coach-led prayer, financial records between the university and Powell, job postings for a football chaplain or any football team spiritual leader, and any other records of Powell’s involvement with the football team. Meanwhile, 11 days after the FFRF targeted The University of Mississippi, the foundation submitted the same request to Mississippi State University and their football chaplain, Bill Buckley.
Buckley was contacted twice for an interview, but declined to comment.
Both Mississippi universities do not pay their football chaplains from public funds. The chaplains are employed by a non-profit organization called The Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The FCA is a privately-run student group of Christian athletes across the United States. Todd Johnson, the Ole Miss FCA campus director, is not afraid of the FFRF and does not think their attorney, Sam Grover, will find anything suspicious in their documents such as students being forced to join the FCA.
“We have no fears because we are doing everything that other institutions (FCA) are doing,” Johnson said.
The FFRF is another national non-profit organization in the United States. The foundation’s purpose is to educate people on the constitutional principle of separation between church and state. Under the First Amendment, the FCA has the freedom to provide religious services to students, but the university cannot collaborate with the FCA to draw students to the group.
“Our records request was sent in part to ensure that the university is not impermissibly allying with the FCA to conduct religious services or to promote religion to student athletes,” Grover said.
FCAThere are five FCA districts in Mississippi, including The University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University. The University of Mississippi has an average of 350 athletes that participate in FCA Bible studies, chapel services, and community service projects around Oxford.
“On Sunday we meet at the Manning Center at 11 in the morning for worship, and on Mondays we meet for small groups and split up our Bible studies,” Thompson said. “We only have three staff members and have people outside of the school supporting us.”
Several churches and local businesses around Oxford and Mississippi donate money to the university’s FCA organization once a month or once a year to help with cost of maintaining the organization.
The two SEC universities in Mississippi seem to be the only SEC schools being targeted by the atheist group so far. Neighboring SEC schools have not been contacted by the FFRF. Louisiana State University football chaplain and member of the NFL Hall of Fame, Ken Ellis, believes the FFRF has no jurisdiction in their case. Ellis is not affiliated with LSU’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but works alongside of the group leading the Bible studies and chapel services.
“I don’t see where they (FFRF) have any grounds to stand on because first of all, the Bible studies and chapel services are voluntarily. No monies are being passed,” Ellis said. “I don’t know what their beef is or what leg they stand on.”
image-1Grover said the FFRF became aware of The University of Mississippi and Mississippi State’s football chaplains because their programs appear similar to other chaplaincies started at elite football teams. Grover did not give any indication of what cases or schools he was referring to.
The University of Mississippi’s attorney, Lee Tyner, has responded back to Grover. Tyner sent the FFRF attorney an initial response about the documents requested, but Grover has not read the statement yet. There is no word from Mississippi State University.
Grover will review the records that both schools send him to determine how the FFRF will proceed. The FCA is rights to have student organizations on campus, but the investigation could change the relationship between chaplains and their football teams. “The universities’ football team should voluntarily sever any ties it has with a chaplain. Having a chaplain on a public university athletic team is a violation of the Establishment Clause under the First Amendment,” Grover said.
“We’re not employees of the university,” Thompson said The University of Mississippi’s coaches and athletes are high profile and the FCA acts carefully to ensure that there is a small number of staff and only minimum volunteers.
Emily Newton is a HottyToddy.com staff reporter and can be reached esnewto1@go.olemiss.edu.

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