Atheist group files complaint against Clemson football program 'entangled' in religion

jjones@charlotteobserver.comApril 15, 2014 

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An atheist and agnostic group has filed a complaint against Clemson University, focused on football coach Dabo Swinney and the team chaplain, saying the program is ‘entangled’ in religion in violation of the First Amendment.

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One of the nation’s largest nonprofit groups for atheists and agnostics has launched a complaint against Clemson’s football program claiming the team is “entrenched” and “entangled” in religion.

The complaint, filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and dated April 10, focuses on Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and team chaplain James Trapp, and it states the program instituted prayers and Bible studies for players from at least 2011 through April 2013.

A statement from Clemson to the Observer on Tuesday said it believes to be within its Constitutional rights and believes the group is “mistaken in its assessment.”

“We believe the practices of the football staff regarding religion are compliant with the Constitution and appropriately accommodate differing religious views,” the statement read. “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.”

The group disputes how Trapp was hired – he was selected by Swinney – by stating student organizations must nominate a chaplain before the school officials approve it.

The FFRF also claims that First Amendment rights concerning the separation of church and state were violated when Swinney scheduled 87 team devotionals between March 2012 and April 2013. Those devotionals, according to FFRF following a public records request, were organized by Trapp, approved by Swinney and led by members of the Clemson coaching staff.

Swinney, a professed devout Christian, hired Trapp, a former two-sport star at Clemson who later went on to Olympics and NFL fame, as the team chaplain in 2011. The FFRF claims religion has become “interwoven” into the football program not by the student-athletes, but by the state-funded employees on the coaching staff.

“There are churches on every other corner, tax-free, where you can go and pray and you can belong to and you can go to Bible study, but it shouldn’t be through the athletic department,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-president of the FFRF, told the Observer on Tuesday. “But as far as free speech rights for students, you can have Bible study groups on campus, but they’re supposed to be run by students.”

The FFRF is a nonprofit company in Madison, Wis., that refers to itself as the nation’s “largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics).” Since its founding in 1978, the organization has lodged numerous complaints against those it views in violation of church and state separation.

The organization’s website boasts of 100 “new legal successes” following complaints since April 2013. In February 2013, Appalachian State responded to a FFRF complaint about former football coach Jerry Moore leading Bible study with players and found those sessions had “no legitimate place in the University’s athletic programs.”

Along with the complaint against the devotionals that was found in the records request, the FFRF contends Swinney had theteam attend an Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast in 2011 in which three players would testify. The organization also contends three buses – which were privately funded – took players and coaches to Valley Brook Baptist Church on a Sunday in August 2011.

“Clemson takes very seriously its obligation to provide a comprehensive program for the development and welfare of our student-athletes – which encompasses academic, athletic and personal support, including support for their spiritual needs,” the statement from the school read.

“The Supreme Court has expressly upheld the right of public bodies to employ chaplains and has noted that the use of prayer is not in conflict with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.”

A spokesman for Clemson’s football team declined comment and referred to the university’s statement.

The FFRF is asking Clemson to “immediately stop team prayers, sermons, Bible studies and ‘church days’ for players and train staff about their First Amendment obligations.” The group referred to the coaches holding prayer and bible studies as coercive behavior.

In 2011, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, now a member of the Houston Texans, was baptized on Clemson’s practice field following a midweek practice.

In a November interview with the Chronicle for Higher Education, Swinney said he does not force religion on his players and that he’s had Mormons, Catholics and Muslims on his teams in the past.

“When we get out on the football field,” Swinney told the Chronicle, “it’s not about if you’re a Christian. It’s about who’s the best player.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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