Religion entrenched in Clemson football

In an April 10 letter of complaint to Clemson University, the Freedom From Religion Foundation details several serious constitutional concerns about how the public university’s football program is entangled with religion. The school in Clemson, S.C., responded Feb. 25 to FFRF’s open records request, on which the complaint to Erin Swan Lauderdale, senior associate general counsel, is based.

“Christian worship seems interwoven into Clemson’s football program,” wrote 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.”

FFRF, a Madison, Wis.-based state-church watchdog, has about 20,000 members nationwide and 155 in South Carolina.

FFRF contends:
• In 2011, coach William “Dabo” Swinney personally invited James Trapp to become team chaplain for the Tigers.
That violates the Constitution and Clemson’s own “misguided and legally dubious ‘Guidelines For Athletic Team Chaplains,’ ” Elliott noted. The guidelines say student groups select their choice for team chaplain and then request the coach’s approval. No records were provided that show a student organization selected a chaplain.

• Trapp was regularly given access to the entire team in between drills for bible study.
FFRF says that by granting Trapp such access, Swinney shows “preference for religion over nonreligion, alienates those players who don’t believe as he does, and creates a culture of religious coercion within the university’s football program.

• The chaplain has an office at the Jervey Athletic Center, displays bible quotes on a whiteboard and organized and led sessions on “being baptized” in the athletic building.

“Mr. Trapp, as a paid employee of a state university, may not proselytize or promote religion and may not use his university office to do so,” Elliott wrote. He also serves as a Fellowship of Christian Athletes representative and as a football recruiting assistant. A website lists him as campus director of ministry/life coach, and he refers to himself as a minister.

“Mr. Trapp’s legal duties and obligations as a state employee prohibit him from using state resources (i.e., his office in the Jervey Athletic Center) and his official position as a recruiting assistant to proselytize. If Mr. Trapp is to evangelize the team, he must not do so as the recruiting assistant, nor can it be at coach Swinney’s insistence.”

FFRF also contends, due to information it’s received, that:
• Swinney confirmed that the entire team would attend an FCA breakfast Dec. 31, 2011, wherein three players would “testify.”

• Three privately funded buses (116-seat total capacity) were used to take the team and coaches to Valley Brook Baptist Church on Aug. 7, 2011, and on other occasions for worship on “Church Day.”

• Swinney schedules team devotionals. Records indicate that between March 2012 and April 2013, approximately 87 devotionals were organized by Trapp, approved by Swinney and led by coaching staff.

“[P]layers wishing to abstain should not be forced to subject themselves to the resentment, embarrassment or scrutiny that could result from taking such a stand,” Elliott said, citing the 1992 Supreme Court case Lee v. Weisman.

FFRF wants the school to direct Swinney and Trapp to immediately stop team prayers, sermons, bible studies and “church days” for players and train staff about their First Amendment obligations and monitor compliance.

In 2012, FFRF sent a letter to Appalachian State University, Boone, N.C., alerting officials to similar violations in its football program. The university agreed that the program’s religious entanglement was coercive and had no legitimate place in the athletic program.

A January 2014 Sports Illustrated story said Swinney had recently signed an eight-year contract for $27.15 million.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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