Quotes in published articles in both the Lawrence Journal-World and on ESPN.com's Web site on the recruitment of former Kansas University basketball player J.R. Giddens have sparked concern of the New Mexico American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU has charged coach Ritchie McKay with inappropriate "mixing of religion and coaching," a charge McKay said was "completely asinine."
ACLU executive director Peter Simonson apparently was taken aback by a comment Giddens made to the Journal-World's Gary Bedore after he announced his transfer from KU to New Mexico U. on July 9.
"He (McKay) is a Christian coach, felt I could become a better person and build a better relationship with God, which is the most important part of my life now," Giddens said. "Basketball is important. It's more important to build a better relationship with the Lord. Coach McKay will help me with that as well."
Giddens made a similar comment to ESPN's Andy Katz:
"Everybody that was scouting me was only looking at me as a talent while coach McKay talked to me about changing as a person, too. He lives by the Lord, and we talked a lot about that. This team is really a family and I wanted to be a part of this."
Also, Giddens' mom, Dianna, told the Journal-World: "The coach (Ritchie McKay) talked to J.R. about being a better person as opposed to being a basketball player. He wants to get him in church. It's mandatory to go to church. He talked about building character. He says if you build character, he'll get a better ballplayer."
New Mexico athletic director Rudy Davalos told the Albuquerque Tribune that Giddens' mom was mistaken and church attendance was not mandatory for any UNM student-athlete.
"I know how to run an athletic program. I know all about the separation of church and state. I know all that and so do my coaches. The ACLU can't tell me how to run my program, and they won't. Period," Davalos told the Tribune.
The ALCU had sent a letter to McKay and Davalos on Aug. 4. Unhappy with the school's response, Simonson went public this week.
"Things keep on surfacing, emerging around coach McKay," Simonson told the Tribune. "I think he is a good coach, a hard-working and honest coach. I also think he doesn't yet understand where the line should be drawn between coaching responsibilities and his religious faith. And the reason I believe that is evidence of that fact continually comes up in the press."
McKay said he did not receive the ACLU's letter. He denied crossing the line that is supposed to separate church and state.
"Very emphatically, I never, ever in my 18 years of coaching have forced a young man or demanded or made it mandatory for a young man to attend church," McKay said. "I appreciate the ACLU, but to not listen to my bosses and to file a complaint, maybe its mission is to be controversial. Obviously I know the difference between making it mandatory and personal convictions and what the First Amendment says."
At issue is the establishment clause of the First Amendment, Andy Schultz, a partner at Rodey law firm and a volunteer for the ACLU on church-state issues, told the Tribune. It protects people from a state endorsement of religious beliefs and prohibits infringement upon religious beliefs. McKay, as an employee of a state university, is an agent of the state, Schultz said.
UNM officials received letters, e-mails and calls of complaints following a story in The Tribune in November 2004 about McKay's strong religious beliefs and how they influence his personal and professional life. Prompted by those complaints, McKay issued a statement saying he does not discriminate against non-Christians.
"I do not require or expect any student to adhere to any religious beliefs in order to be a member of the UNM basketball program," McKay's statement said.