National group accuses Clemson football staff of 'unconstitutional behaviors' over religion

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. (AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail, Mark Crammer)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit educational charity based in Madison, Wis., has sent a letter of complaint to Clemson University citing "constitutional concerns about how the public university's football program is entangled with religion."

According to the foundation, Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney has promoted a culture in the program that violates constitutional stipulations of the separation of church and state.

"Christian worship seems interwoven into Clemson's football program," wrote Patrick Elliott, staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. "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."

Cathy Sams, Clemson's chief public affairs officer, said Tuesday the university has not completed its review of the letter.

"I can't comment on any of the specifics in the letter or any of the specific concerns," Sams told the Greenville News. "No one is required to participate in any religious activities related to the football program. It's purely voluntary. Religion and faith is a big part of Coach Swinney's personal beliefs, but it is in no way required. There is no mandatory participation."

The foundation says it is the nation's largest association of atheists and agnostics with more than 20,000 members nationwide and about 150 in South Carolina.

The foundation has recommended the elimination of Clemson's chaplaincy position, currently held by former Clemson player James Trapp. It contends that Swinney and Trapp have used their positions in the program to proselytize, by arranging Bible studies, organizing devotionals and distributing Bibles and other religious materials.

"What we have observed in the records is that the football coaching staff is doing a number of things to promote Christianity to their student-athletes," Elliott said.

"While student-athletes can pray, conduct Bible studies and engage in religious activities, the coaching staff, as public employees, should not be doing that with their student athletes.

"What we'd like to see is the end of this chaplaincy position and end to Bible distributions by coaches, an end to devotionals scheduled and put on by coaches and staff. The coaches need to step back and just coach (football) and not coach in religious matters."