*This post was updated on Dec. 20 at 6:25 p.m. to add clarification to The Arbiter’s original reporting. Boise State is maintaining its relationship with Pastor Mark Thornton. However, the title position of “team chaplain” is no longer being recognized. See the Boise State press release for more details.
Boise State’s football program has recently come under fire for allegedly paying away-game travel expenses for Pastor Mark Thornton. Thornton was not a salaried staff member, but had previously been recognized as the Boise State Football Team Chaplain for approximately four and a half years.
In response to the removal of the chaplaincy, Boise State has created a Free Exercise Fund to support the travel of spiritual advisors to football games, after a protest by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a non-profit “voice for freethought group,” asked the school for a separation between church and state in an email on Nov. 25.
In the email, the FFRF asked the university to terminate its team chaplain position, as well as submitted several public records requests regarding Thornton’s travels and associations with the university.
The attention from the FFRF towards the team chaplaincy came after the Nov. 6 football matchup between the Boise State Broncos and Brigham Young University (BYU) Cougars. The teams met at midfield in Albertsons stadium to say a voluntary prayer led by Thornton, who is also a former Boise State student-athlete.
BYU normally holds a post-game prayer in the locker room after each game. Boise State holds one at midfield after their games.
Thornton sought out BYU’s Head Coach Kalani Sitake and asked if they would like to pray with them. Sitake called his student-athletes back to the 50-yard line to join Boise State in a prayer between evangelical Christians, Latter-day Saints, Catholics and those who Thornton referred to as agnostic.
“We prayed for the guys who got hurt on both sides of the field, just for a quick recovery for them,” Thornton told the Deseret news. “We blessed BYU and just prayed that they would continue to have a great season, and that we would continue to have a great season, as well.”
The FFRF argued that since BYU is a privately funded school they were not violating student-athletes constitutional rights. Because Boise State is a publicly funded university, the FFRF believes there needs to be an appropriate separation between church and state, which would mean no longer having an official chaplain position.
“Abolishing the team chaplaincy will not alter student-athletes’ ability to pray, but it will prevent some student-athletes from feeling coerced into participating in prayers to a deity they may not believe in,” the FFRF wrote. “Boise State is a state school, a secular school — and its employees and volunteers must act accordingly. Boise State should act quickly to end the chaplaincy and educate its athletic staff on appropriate constitutional boundaries.”
Boise State issued a press release on Dec. 16 responding to the email defending the student-athletes’ right to freely exercise religion.
“It’s shameful that parties external to the university are using a photo of student-athlete prayer as an opportunity to attempt to interfere with our student-athletes’ constitutional right to freely practice the religion of their choosing,” the press release stated.
Boise State President Marlene Tromp committed to personally pay for Thornton’s travel to the Mountain West Championship game. Thornton will continue to join the team on the sidelines, attend away games, hold chapel the evening before each game, join student-led prayers before and after each game, lead weekly bible studies, be available to student-athletes who want to pray with him and seek his counsel. He will not be called a chaplain.
Boise State’s general counsel responded directly to the FFRF’s email:
“We have been in communication with the athletic department to provide some education about this issue and to ensure measures are taken now and in the future to resolve the issue, and establish appropriate constitutional boundaries.”
Student-athletes have always been able to choose whether or not they prayed with the chaplain. However, the FFRF felt that, by having a designated chaplain, the university was inadvertently pressuring student-athletes to participate in team prayers, which could be considered illegal.
“Claiming that the players can voluntarily seek out Thornton cannot cure this violation,” the FFRF’s attorney claimed in the letter to the school. “First, players can seek out religious guidance at any of the other campus ministries or in the local community. The football team does not need to employ or host a volunteer chaplain — indeed, it cannot legally do so.”
The Deseret News quoted Boise State cornerback Avery Williams in an article about the situation. According to the article: “Boise’s coaches emphasize the mind, body, soul and spirit, (Williams) added. Williams said the Bronco coaches are men of God who join the team at chapel, but the senior defensive back said none of the coaches or players pressure anyone to pray or join chapel meetings.”
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor shared her pleasure with Boise State’s decision in a Dec. 16 news release.
“It’s indeed a great start that college officials are shrinking the program because students should not be expected to pray to play. We’re hoping that they’ll soon score a constitutional touchdown by doing away with the chaplaincy completely,” Gaylor wrote.