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Group files complaint asking Clemson to separate religion from football

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Clemson
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Nov 14, 2013; Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson Tigers cornerback Darius Robinson (8), head coach Dabo Swinney (center) and wide receiver Sammy Watkins (2) prior to the game against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Clemson Memorial Stadium. (Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking Clemson University to create a clear separation between the football program and religion.

According to a letter of complaint to Clemson, the Freedom From Religion Foundation claims coach Dabo Swinney has violated the separation of church and state by arranging by Bible studies and devotionals, and distributing Bibles and other religious materials to players.

The foundation said it submitted an open records request in February to obtain emails and information from Clemson illustrating the connection between football and religion.

"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," foundation staff attorney Patrick 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."

The foundation said it would like the university to do away with its chaplain position, which is currently held by former Clemson player James Trapp, who, the foundation said, is exerting too much religious influence on players.

Here are some of the details of the group's complaint:

• 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.
The 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, according to the FFRF.

"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," Elliott wrote. "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."

The FFRF also contends, according 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 the coaching staff.

According to The Greenville News, university chief public affairs officer Cathy Sams said her office is still reviewing the letter but that she didn’t believe the football program forced religion on its players.

"I can't comment on any of the specifics in the letter or any of the specific concerns," Sams told the paper. "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 Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit educational charity based in Madison, Wis., and claims to be the nation's largest association of atheists and agnostics.

Elliott told The Greensville News that he didn’t want to infringe on Swinney’s religious freedoms or the religious freedoms of any of the other coaches, but he said his group wanted to make sure that those religious views weren’t brought into the workplace.

"He has every right to be a religious person and to engage in these activities," Elliott told the paper. "But he doesn't have the right to do that as a part of his university coaching position. There needs to be a complete separation between his religious views and demonstrating that and encouraging that with people under his charge.

"It violates their constitutional rights. Coaches have tremendous influence over players. They make decisions on who has scholarships and who plays and what they do."

The site notes that it sent a similar letter to Appalachian State University in 2012, and the university agreed that it did not have a clear enough separation between football and religion and rectified the situation.

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Graham Watson is the editor of Dr. Saturday on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at dr.saturday@ymail.com or follow her on Twitter

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