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University rejects atheists’ claim that Vatican trip is unconstitutional

The University of Michigan football team visited the Vatican Wednesday despite complaints from the leaders of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who claimed the event was unconstitutional because the college receives taxpayer funding. The team is in Italy practicing football and sightseeing. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

The University of Michigan’s football team took a trip to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis Wednesday, defying complaints from the United State's largest atheist organization, which claimed the meeting was unconstitutional.

The Vatican pit stop came as the Wolverines were practicing football and sightseeing in Rome this week. Students were given the option of whether or not they wanted to participate in the papal visit.

Rick Fitzgerald, the publicly funded university’s director of public affairs, said the decision to visit the Vatican was left up to the students because they are adults who “are able to make informed decisions on their own.”

“Some players who chose not to meet the pontiff today were able to join the tour of the Vatican, just as those who chose not to visit the Vatican had the opportunity to relax at the hotel or take advantage of other sightseeing options,” he told the Christian Post. “In fact, there were members of the football team who chose not to make the trip to Italy at all.”

The Michigan athletes began their trip in Italy, which has featured both educational and cultural activities, last Saturday and are scheduled to return this Saturday, according to the university’s athletic website.

“I want it to be the greatest experience of our players’ lives up until this point,” Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh told the site. “"It's going to be a great educational experience, and we have tickets to see the Pope give a papal address on the 26th of April.”

And it was that visit that irked the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

In fact, the FFRF released a statement Monday, urging the university to “cancel a scheduled papal audience during its current visit to Europe.”

The atheist advocacy group’s co-presidents, Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, told university President Mark Schlissel that taking students to visit the pope was a violation of the Constitution.

The two FFRF leaders argued that the visit is “showing favoritism” to Roman Catholicism over all other religions and atheism.

“Far from merely a speech by a celebrity, a papal audience is a religious activity in which the pope prays and delivers an Apostolic Blessing upon those in attendance,” the group’s statement reads. “It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for a public university to include a religious ceremony, particularly a sectarian one, on a European trip that an entire student athletic team is expected to attend.”

The FFRF said the fact that the papal visit is optional is “no defense” for holding such an event because the coaches and staff hold “tremendous influence” over the athletes, who “do not view coaches’ suggestions as optional.”

It’s not clear yet exactly how the FFRF will response now that the University of Michigan has attended the papal visit despite the organization’s complaints.

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