The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s complaint to Clemson University over serious entanglements between its football program and religion created a national firestorm in April. FFRF’s administrative staff took abusive calls tying up the lines for a week and half after the complaint broke on wire stories, sports news sites and Fox TV.
“Christian worship seems interwoven into Clemson’s football program,” wrote Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott in his letter to the general counsel of Clemson University, a public university in Clemson, S.C.
Elliott warned of a “a culture of religious coercion within the university’s football program,” after reviewing evidence gleaned from his open records request, showing:
• In 2011, coach William “Dabo” Swinney personally invited James Trapp to become “team chaplain” for the Tigers. This is in violation of the Constitution and even Clemson’s own “misguided and legally dubious ‘Guidelines For Athletic Team Chaplains.’ ”
• Trapp was regularly given access to the entire team to conduct bible study between drills.
• The chaplain has an office at the Jervey Athletic Center, displays bible quotes on a whiteboard and has organized and led sessions on “being baptized” in the athletic building.
• Swinney confirmed that the entire team would attend a Fellowship of Christian Athletes 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.
“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. Trapp 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.”
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.
While denying wrongdoing, the university has responded that it is investigating the allegations.