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Democrat calls on Clemson coach Dabo Swinney to back out of fundraiser

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney Rich Glickstein

Clemson University head football coach Dabo Swinney should not appear at a fundraiser for a S.C. group that opposes gay marriage, the top Democrat in the S.C. House said Friday.

Swinney is scheduled to appear June 2 at the Columbia event for the Palmetto Family Council, a conservative advocacy group that opposes same-sex marriage and abortion, and often allies itself with S.C. Republicans.

“I find it highly inappropriate that Coach Swinney would appear at a fundraiser for an organization that is so openly discriminatory and politically motivated,” House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said in a statement. “I cannot fathom why Coach Swinney or anyone else would knowingly assist a group whose mission is to fight against equal rights and equal treatment of others.”

Family Council president Oran Smith, who helped craft South Carolina’s 2006 gay-marriage ban amendment, said Swinney will be honored for his Christian testimony, not political reasons.

“Like any other South Carolina citizen, he should be free to speak where he would like to,” said Smith, who has led the Palmetto Family Council for 14 years.

Jeff Ayers of S.C. Equality, a gay rights advocacy group, said he is disappointed Swinney accepted an invitation to appear at a fundraiser for an organization that has been outspoken against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. “It’s sending the wrong message to the LGBT students, and faculty and supporters of Clemson.”

At the event, the Palmetto Family Council also will recognize “faithful defenders of religious liberty in South Carolina,” including at least one “prominent Gamecock,” according to the organization’s Facebook page.

Smith said that statement is a reference to Gamecock fan and state Solicitor General Bob Cook, who co-wrote a legal brief regarding public prayer.

USC athletics director Ray Tanner previously has spoken to the organization, according to the Family Council’s website. The council recognized Tanner's foundation for its work on behalf of “economically and medically disadvantaged” S.C. children, said USC spokesman Wes Hickman.

Clemson spokeswoman Robin Denny said Swinney was notified several months ago that he would receive an award from the Family Council, based on personal factors, including the work of his foundation. “As far as we can surmise it is not a speaking engagement, merely an acceptance of an award.”

The Palmetto Family Council is the S.C. associate of the Family Research Council, a national group that the Southern Poverty Law Center calls an anti-gay lobby and hate group.

Swinney, like Tanner, is a state-paid employee, state Rep. Rutherford noted. “As a state employee, national figure and role model to kids all over the state, Coach Swinney should send a message that he has zero tolerance for discrimination and cancel his appearance.”

Other state-paid employees — from Gov. Nikki Haley to Attorney General Alan Wilson, both Lexington Republicans, to legislators — have been outspoken in their opposition to gay marriage.

House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, defended Swinney.

A state employee — whether a head football coach, head baseball coach or director of an agency — does not give up their right to free speech, he said.

“Dabo Swinney has been nothing but professional and positive,” Bannister said. “The fact that he has a very strong faith and wants to talk about it on his time is absolutely appropriate and acceptable.”

Nearly a year ago, Clemson’s athletic program took heat from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. That organization, sent a five-page complaint to the university stating it was concerned that Swinney and Clemson were “co-mingling ... religion and athletics results, not from student initiative, but rather from the attitudes and unconstitutional behaviors of the coaching staff.”

A Clemson attorney responded the foundation’s complaint “misconstrued important facts and made incorrect statements of the law.” However, the foundation’s concerns would be included in reviews of Clemson’s programs, the letter said.

In an interview last year, Swinney said he played football with gay teammates when he played as a wide receiver at the University of Alabama, according to a CBS Sports article.

“Those are personal decisions that people have to make,” Swinney said in the interview. “I mean everyone will be judged one day, but it's not up to me to judge somebody."

Rutherford commended Swinney for speaking out against judging others based on their sexual orientation. “(B)ut the fundraiser he's attending is for a group whose sole mission is to judge and discriminate based on sexual orientation.”

Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.