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Atheist Group Files ‘Religious Coercion’ Complaint Against Clemson Football Program

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A national atheist organization has filed a complaint against Clemson University citing “unconstitutional behavior” and “religious coercion” by Coach Dabo Swinny and the football program, arguing that the public university should remove all religion from its athletic department. (Getty Images)

A national atheist organization has filed a complaint against Clemson University citing “unconstitutional behavior” and “religious coercion” by Coach Dabo Swinny and the football program, arguing that the public university should remove all religion from its athletic department. (Getty Images)

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Clemson, S.C. (CBS CHARLOTTE) – A national atheist organization has filed a complaint against Clemson University citing “unconstitutional behavior” and “religious coercion” by Coach Dabo Swinney and the football program, arguing that the public university should remove all religion from its athletic department.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, the “largest national organization advocating for non-theists,” is targeting the Clemson University football program for Constitutional violations through the separation of church and state, accusing the school of promoting Christian worship, WYFF reports.

After filing an open records request with Clemson in February, the FFRF sent an Apr. 10 letter of complaint stating that the university’s football program is promoting religion among its players.

“Christian worship seems interwoven into Clemson’s football program,” writes FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott. “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.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation complaint accuses football Coach Dabo Swinney of giving preferential treatment to Christian players, creating a “culture of religious coercion.” The complaint says that Swinney did not follow team procedure in his invitation of team chaplain, James Trapp, and that Trapp is given access to the team between drills for Bible study, WYFF reports.

The complaint says that Bible quotes are readily displayed in the athletic building along with meetings on being baptized. The FFRF adds that Trapp, a paid employee of the public university, “refers to himself as a minister,” keeps Bibles in his office for distribution, and serves as a representative for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

The FFRF says it has received several complaints from South Carolina residents since 2012, but the university says they believe they are being compliant with the Constitution.

Clemson University Chief Public Affairs Officer Cathy Sams released the following statement on the matter: “We believe the practices of the football staff regarding religion are compliant with the Constitution and appropriately accommodate differing religious views. 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 statement additionally notes that the university takes its obligation to provide students a “comprehensive program” for student-athlete development and welfare, adding that this “encompasses academic, athletic and personal support, including support for their spiritual needs.”

The university said that it will evaluate the FRFF complaints against the football program, but it believes the FFRF “is mistaken in its assessment.”

A 2012 photo of former Clemson Tiger and current Houston Texan NFL player, DeAndre Hopkins, shows him surrounded by players and coaches while being baptized. The photo spread rapidly across social media, with people across the country either showing support or criticizing the event.

“That’s a religious ceremony, I don’t think anybody would deny that, and should a public university and public school staff be involved with that, I think the answer is clearly ‘no’ from a legal perspective,” FFRF attorney Patrick Elliott told WYFF.

Commenters are weighing in the current debate, with WYFF noting two responses on Twitter: “And this is what’s wrong with our country. Coaches punished for being positive influences,” wrote one supporter. “This is sad. Keep doing what you’re doing Dabo,” writes another.

“The athletes want to play football and that requires complying with the coach. What athlete is going to say no to going to church with the team or attending a baptism if they feel their status on the team will be jeopardized,” one commenter supporting the FRFF writes on the WYFF website.

A WYFF survey that has received over 4,000 responses shows that only 12 percent (520 voters) agree with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, while 88 percent (3,644 voters) disagree with their stance.

Earlier this year, the head football coach of a North Carolina high school was ordered to stop baptizing players and leading them in prayer following church-and-state separation complaints also from the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

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