June 7th, 2016
Much of the case law surrounding sports and religion in recent history has focused on the high school or collegiate level. The “Friday Night Lights” traditions that bind school age sports stars to their parents and predecessors are often steeped in religion, be it through prayer, cheers, or statements of good luck. For much of the case law involving this tie between religion and sports, the professional circuit was largely absent. This may all change, given recent statements by the head of the National Football League (NFL).
Many may consider the statements premature or political given their timing, as it is not only an election year, but the state law being opposed by the League is not actually ratified yet. It is a bill that was passed by the Georgia state legislature and is waiting for the Governor’s signature, which proponents say is just another in a long line of state supported religious freedom bills that is necessary to ensure Georgia’s religious citizens are not losing their right to practice the religion of their choice. It is another situation in which the struggle between LGBT Americans’ right to obtain services across the country and the proclaimed right of Christian citizens to deny such services based on their strongly held religious beliefs. The NFL entering this fight, however, could have a substantial impact on how Georgia’s struggle plays out.
Football and the Constitution
There is no argument to the contrary that the U.S. Constitution protects the right of every citizen to be free from a state religion. There is also likely no argument against the idea that there are no constitutional protections for the game of football. It is between this unlikely pairing, however, that our country’s next constitutional battle may take place as the NFL took a stance that would possibly prevent the state of Georgia from hosting what is one of the largest sporting events of the year as a condition of the legislature’s consideration of its latest attempt at a religious freedom bill. The NFL stated that its policies “emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination…whether the laws and regulations of a state and local community are consistent with these policies would be one of many factors NFL owners may use to evaluate potential [Big Game] host sites.”
The League has made similar statements when other states considered their religious freedom laws, which signals the NFL’s commitment on this issue. Proponents of such laws, however, have argued that the NFL should stay out of the fight as some feel that the pressure is too much for states to resist. Whether these religious freedom laws will actually be put to use as many fear (i.e. to blatantly discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation), will take time. The question that is now before the Georgia governor, and that has plagued previous governors in other states, is whether that time will be too costly to the state as a whole. The commerce that a major sports championship brings to a locality is largely unmatched and tends to be a boon to whatever location is chosen. Can a governor, whose purpose is to act in the best interests of the state, look that commerce in the eye and say “bring it on”? Time will tell what the governor of Georgia decides to do, as will it bring more answers to the fight between state law protecting religious freedom and preventing discrimination.
The Universal Life Church will continue to monitor this fight, and others, that are currently playing out across the country. Our mission is to ensure that the constitutional protections of religious freedom continue to be upheld. It should not be an either/or situation, however, as these protections can be upheld while also ensuring that the civil liberties of LGBT citizens are not trampled.