Rutherford Institute Defends Women’s Basketball Coach’s First Amendment Right To Religious Expression


The Rutherford Institute has come to the defense of the First Amendment rights of a women’s college basketball coach who has come under fire for citing God in response to a reporter’s question, posting Bible verses to her social media account, and leading gameday devotionals.

In championing the free speech rights of Dawn Staley, coach of the Gamecocks, which recently won the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have offered their assistance to the University of South Carolina in rebutting a complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) over Staley’s private expressions of her Christian faith.

“While the government may not establish or compel a particular religion, it also may not silence and suppress religious speech merely because others take offense,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “People are free to ignore, disagree with, or counter the religious speech of others, but they cannot compel the government to censor such speech. As such, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has the right to complain about the actions of the University’s women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley, but it does not have the right to compel the University of South Carolina to suppress Coach Staley’s personal religious speech and expression.”

Shortly after the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team won their game against Oregon State on March 31, 2024, in the NCAA Tournament to advance to the Final Four, Gamecocks Coach Dawn Staley was interviewed by an ESPN reporter on the court after being showered with confetti by her team. The reporter asked, “Since the last two games have been close and tough,…what’s impressed you about this [team]?” In answering the question, Coach Staley praised the resilience and hard work of the players and then explained, “I’m giving all the glory to God, though. …The devastating loss that we had last year, to put us back here with a totally different team—if you don’t believe in God, something’s wrong with you, seriously. I’m a believer. I’m a believer because He makes things come true. When you’re at your worst, He’s at His best.”

The next day, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter demanding that the University “take action to protect its student athletes and to ensure that Staley understands that she has been hired as a basketball coach and not a pastor” by having “Staley be educated as to her constitutional duties under the Establishment Clause” and “not continue to proselytize to her players.” The FFRF letter also complained about Coach Staley’s gameday devotionals and posting Bible verses, like “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” to her social media account on X. In response, The Rutherford Institute issued a letter reminding the University that the government cannot censor or script everything its employees say, and Coach Staley can still act as a private citizen who has the rights to freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion. Those two rights doubly protect her religious expressions and are complemented, rather than negated, by the Establishment Clause.

The Rutherford Institute Newsroom

The Rutherford Institute—nonpartisan, apolitical and committed to the principles enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights—is working tirelessly to reshape the government from the bottom up into one that respects freedom, recognizes our worth as human beings, resists corruption, and abides by the rule of law. The Rutherford Institute was Founded in 1982 by constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead.

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