'Church Day' gets ACLU protest

Tommy Bowden

Bowden's worship event voluntary, Clemson lawyer says

CLEMSON — Tommy Bowden has drawn the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union for conducting an annual "Church Day" for his football players.

In correspondence obtained Wednesday by The Post and Courier, the ACLU alleged Bowden "has abused his authority as Clemson University's head football coach by imposing his strong personal religious beliefs upon student-athletes under his charge."

Neil Caesar, vice president of the ACLU's South Carolina chapter, voiced those objections in a letter dated Aug. 31 to Clemson President James Barker, saying the state-run school is violating the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

University counsel Clayton Steadman responded in a Sept. 21 letter, saying an investigation by the university found the ACLU's allegations unfounded because attendance at the church services is voluntary. He wrote that Clemson has no plans to discontinue the function, which has taken place for most of Bowden's nine-year tenure.

Reached Wednesday, Caesar said the ACLU had wished to keep the matter private, but it became a topic of discussion on an Upstate radio station earlier in the day. He said he anticipates further dialogue between Clemson and the ACLU to resolve "nuances" over Bowden's involvement in his team's religious activities.

Caesar said the ACLU's objections were spurred by a May 23 article in The Greenville News that said "everyone on the roster" attends a church of Bowden's choosing each year. He said Bowden, a devout Baptist, is taking "unfair and unlawful advantage of his position to promote his personal religious beliefs."

He said Bowden has been "unfair and unlawful" by imposing a Protestant religious view, as opposed to a cross-section that includes "a Roman Catholic church, a Unitarian-Universalist fellowship, a synagogue, a temple or a mosque.

"If he were Coach Cohen expressing his strong Jewish beliefs and conducting Synagogue Day, or Coach Abdullah conducting Mosque Day, the public wouldn't be so sanguine about this," Caesar said Wednesday. "When he's wearing his coach's hat at a public university, he has a certain obligation under the law. He can't pressure the students, and he should leave Clemson out of it."

According to Steadman's letter, Clemson discovered that a university bus was used to escort the football players to a church service in August. He wrote that athletes who participate in the future will use their own transportation. In addition, Clemson said it will begin soliciting feedback on this issue during the exit-interview process for athletes who have exhausted their eligibility.

Steadman said Bowden merely "encourages" all members of his team to attend a local church as a group. He said no player has ever been punished for not attending.

"The specific church has varied over the years with the only constraint being a congregation with a facility large enough to accommodate the approximately 150 team members who typically attend," the letter said.

Clemson also provided a copy of a July 10 letter to players' parents from Bowden, who said he "strongly" recommends his players attend one church service per year as a team. He asked parents with concerns about Church Day to contact him.