Clemson football accused of pushing Christianity on players (+ survey)

cclick@thestate.comApril 15, 2014 

Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney (right) and offensive coordinator Chad Morris (left) react during the first half in the 2014 Orange Bowl college football game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Sun Life Stadium.

JOSHUA S. KELLY — USA TODAY Sports

The leader of an organization that monitors separation of church and state said Tuesday that Clemson University head football coach Dabo Swinney and his staff have leavened their athletic program with so much Christian indoctrination that the administration needs to step in and say “hands off the consciences of these kids.”

But Clemson University said Tuesday it supports Swinney and his program and has found no improprieties.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent a letter of complaint to Clemson University, urging the Upstate school to cease the athletics department’s emphasis on prayers, Bible studies and other religious activities, including busing players to local churches for Sunday services.

“Of course these students are going to feel that they have to go to every Fellowship of Christian Athletes prayer breakfast,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the education non-profit based in Madison, Wisc., that represents atheists and agnostics. But she said, “Football players should not be subjected to religious tests to play.”

The complaint filed April 10 could set up a clash of culture and Constitution in a deeply religious and politically conservative region of South Carolina. But at least one or more Clemson residents were apparently uncomfortable with the practices of the football program and brought the issue to the attention of the foundation, Gaylor said.

In the complaint, foundation staff attorney Patrick Elliott said “Christian worship seems interwoven into Clemson’s football program. We are concerned that this commingling of religion and athletics results, not from student initiative, but rather from the attitudes and unconstitutional behaviors of the coaching staff.”

A spokesman for the Clemson athletics department declined to comment on the letter of complaint. Tim Bourret, Clemson’s assistant athletics director for football communication, said officials had been advised by counsel not to have any comment.

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But Cathy Sams, Clemson’s chief public affairs officer, defended the football program and said the university believes the foundation is mistaken in its assessment of the program’s religious bent.

“We believe the practices of the football staff regarding religion are compliant with the Constitution and appropriately accommodate differing religious views,” the university said in a written statement. “Participation in religious activities is purely voluntary, and there are no repercussions for students who decline to do so. We are not aware of any complaints from current or former student-athletes about feeling pressured or forced to participate in religious activities.”

Swinney, who made $2.5 million for the 2013 season and has inked an eight-year deal worth more than $27 million, has made no secret of his Christian faith and his reliance on God in his daily life.

“To be here as the head coach at Clemson, that doesn’t just happen,” Swinney said when he was named head coach in 2008. “I hope people will really listen to me when I tell them what my secret to success is, and that is to put your eyes on the Lord in everything you do, and believe in yourself, and don’t quit.”

The foundation said it has no problem with Swinney exercising his personal religious freedom, but Gaylor said that stops at the feet of student athletes.

“The principle is that you cannot compel someone to go to church,” said Gaylor, who noted that another good southerner, Thomas Jefferson, authored the definitive doctrine on religion freedom. “These students can go to their own churches.”

The group in its complaint made several allegations against team chaplain and former Tiger player James Trapp, saying that “Mr. Trapp, as a paid employee of a state university, may not proselytize or promote religion.”

But a Clemson official said Trapp, who is listed as campus director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes organization, is not a university employee. Trapp is listed in the Clemson media guide as a "Volunteer Team Advisor."

Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Madison, Wis.-based state-church watchdog with about 20,000 members nationwide and 155 in South Carolina. Last year, Gaylor said the organization dealt with 2,500 complaints, many related to praying in public schools.

Last year, the foundation challenged invocation at graduations on behalf of two graduates of Lexington-Richland 5 schools and one current student.

Ed McGrahanan contributed to this story.

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