Usually when there is a debate involving free exercise and establishment at Clemson, it's about fans attending a football scrimmage with no admission charge and arguing about when head coach Dabo Swinney should name a starting quarterback.
This time it's Swinney vs. a fringe organization that solicits donations so staffers can do things like whine about people saying "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy holidays." The Freedom From Religion Foundation claims to be "the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics)." And the second largest? Probably the late afternoon crowd at a coffee shop in Santa Cruz.
But Swinney, who consistently mixes a Christian message into his coaching routine, is left open to criticism when a Fellowship of Christian Athletes office is inside the Clemson football building and a football player is baptized at practice (as DeAndre Hopkins was in 2013).
Would an FCA office in any other location in tiny Clemson serve student-athletes any less effectively? Would toning it down a bit keep the cynics away?
Otherwise, most of the concerns in a letter of complaint the FFRF sent to Clemson this week are ridiculous. For instance, the group has recommended the elimination of Clemson's sports chaplaincy position, a job title common throughout college and professional sports.
Clemson in its response insists Swinney and his coaches are not violating the separation of church and state Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and that free exercise of religion is "purely voluntary."
"There is no mandatory participation," Clemson spokeswoman Cathy Sams said.
Prayer goes with sports - in baseball huddles before games, when football teams hold hands with other football teams after games. The FCA meets on public high school campuses.
More so in the South, for goodness sake.
Drugs, porn, and God
At South Carolina and Clemson, fans are led in prayer prior to kickoffs. Faith-based bonds have been a big part of recent Gamecock baseball teams (re-read Travis Haney's "Gamecock Glory") and the Alabama football fabric (so says Nick Saban in his recent FCA address), and exist in many other sports programs throughout the region.
By the way, there was an official prayer at the recent South Carolina Press Association awards banquet.
With all the negative hurdles college kids have to deal with these days - drugs, absentee fathers, student loan debt, porn, absentee mothers - it's hard to comprehend people making a living out of making an issue of coaches chatting up God. If the FFRF is really concerned about Clemson athletes, why not worry about the Tigers' regularly scheduled games against teams named the Blue Devils and Demon Deacons?
Clemson recruits know what they're getting into, for better or worse. To that end, Swinney while discussing openly gay NFL prospect Michael Sam sounded a lot more tolerant than organizations funded to promote so-called tolerance. Swinney said he played with gay players at Alabama and said there was "a little bit of everything" within his Clemson roster.
Dabo on Muslims, gays
"Again, you have respect for each individual and their personal beliefs," Swinney said. "It's just like they're different religions. I'm a Christian, but I've coached and played with Muslims and all kind of different religions. It's not about any of that. Those are personal decisions that people have to make. I mean everyone will be judged one day, but it's not up to me to judge somebody."
Jesus was persecuted for not backing down and said that fellow believers would suffer for their honesty. Clemson and Swinney can probably win this battle without budging, and there's something noble in that.
Simply move the FCA office across the street, however, and that asphalt between Clemson and the off-campus world acts as protection against silly "complaints."
Pragmatism isn't always such a bad idea, especially when you can maintain conviction without distractions.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff
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