Americans United has asked the University of Utah to end a supposedly voluntary religious class taught by two assistant coaches with the school’s football team.
Thanks to a media report, Americans United learned that Morgan Scalley, the Utes’ safeties and special-teams coach, and Sione Pouha, a student assistant who played in the NFL, have been leading classes on the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).
In its October 19 letter, AU explained that the course could coerce football players at the public school to participate in religious activities, asserting that the “need for religious neutrality is, moreover, especially strong when it comes to the coaches and staff of the college football team: Student athletes rely on their coaches for playing time, scholarships and the potential opportunity to become a professional athlete.”
The University Office of General Counsel denied any constitutional issues with the course, claiming there is no problem with “a group of LDS students and coaches to voluntarily participate in a religious instruction activity.”
The school’s attorneys added, “At the present time, we have no reason to believe this was an activity sponsored by the university or that there was any coercion of the students to participate. These individuals have the constitutional right to freely exercise their religion, and it would be illegal for the University to interfere with that activity.”
But Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser did not buy that argument.
“The classes are being taught by a member of the coaching staff, on the practice field or in team meeting rooms, often immediately after practice,” Luchenitser told the Salt Lake Tribune. “That communicates to players that the classes are sponsored and endorsed by the University of Utah. The religious classes thus place the university’s stamp of approval on a particular religious faith. When a coach teaches a religious class on school property in conjunction with practice, team members will naturally think that taking part in the class will make the coach think more favorably of them and will feel pressure to join the instruction.”
Doug Andersen, a spokesman for the LDS Church, told the Tribune that the class has been taught at the school for 11 years and led by Terry Baker for all but one. Baker is an instructor with the LDS Institute and a former college athlete who is not employed by the football team.