FFRF insists that UConn banish forced religious rituals

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The Freedom from Religion Foundation is warning the University of Connecticut against enabling its staff to force students to adhere to religious phrases and rituals.

National media recently reported that a now-retired University of Connecticut biology professor at a UConn satellite campus in Hartford had required students to recite an Islamic religious phrase before entering his office. The professor, Dr. Felix Coe, has taped a sign outside of his office that instructed students to say, “Bismillah,” which is Arabic for “in the name of Allah.” The phrase is a typical opening of Islamic prayers. Coe is quoted by a student in the story as having said, “I’m a Muslim. You don’t come into my office with dirty shoes. That’s a curse.” He also allegedly told the student to “get the hell out” and “I don’t want to see you” in response to the students wearing shoes inside his office.

A UConn spokesperson appears to have confirmed that the reporting was accurate. FFRF has sent a letter to the university insisting that action be taken to ensure no such constitutional violation occurs in the future.

“It is unconstitutional and outrageous that the school allowed a professor to require students to utter a religious phrase and follow a religious custom before entering his office,” writes FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne. “This conduct should never have been allowed.”

Although Coe is now retired, FFRF is requesting a written assurance that UConn will take appropriate action to educate university staff on the issue. Public school teachers, including public university professors, may not order students to engage in religious rituals or endorse religion to students in any other way.

By requiring students to voice their support for a professor’s god — and telling students who do not to “get the hell out” — Coe sent an overtly exclusionary message to students who do not share the professor’s personal religion. That includes the almost 25 percent of American adults who identify as nonreligious.

“This is alarming conduct for a public university professor and should never have been allowed,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. FFRF noted that it is extremely concerning that Coe reportedly continued this practice until his retirement.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 33,000 members across the country, including over 300 members in Connecticut. Its purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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