Responding to concerns raised by Americans United, officials at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., have promised to respect church-state separation in the operation of the women's basketball program.
Attorneys with Americans United contacted the university recently after reports came to light that women's basketball coach Deb Patterson had instituted group prayers with team players before games, appointed a team chaplain from a local fundamentalist church and had stated that she hires staffers who share her faith. AU advised the university that these practices at a public university run afoul of the First Amendment.
The letter noted that although some federal courts have upheld non-sectarian prayers at university graduation ceremonies, it does not follow that a coach may pressure players to take part in Christian worship.
The letter also expressed concern about a Feb. 2 Manhattan Mercury news story, which reported that Patterson "has put in place a group whose priorities and spiritual foundations mirror hers." Patterson is quoted as saying that it is her hope that, "We could build a program where we could talk about our faith, talk about the Lord."
AU attorneys pointed out that hiring on the basis of religion is forbidden at public universities.
On March 13, Richard H. Seaton, university attorney, wrote to Americans United and addressed each concern that was raised. Regarding team prayer, Seaton wrote, "We have advised Coach Patterson to refrain from any participation in prayers. Furthermore, Coach Patterson has been counseled regarding the Establishment Clause and understands her role and duty as Head Coach."
Seaton assured AU that the school is an equal-opportunity employer that does not tolerate discrimination on the basis of religion when hiring.
"Our own inquiry has not revealed any discrimination in Coach Patterson's hiring practices," Seaton wrote. "Whether she is recruiting coaches or players, her only litmus test is whether they are good enough to coach and play at Kansas State."
Finally, Seaton said that the local minister, Sterling Hudgins, is not a paid university employee and will no longer be referred to as a chaplain. It will be made clear, Seaton said, that his position is voluntary.