Clemson vs. The Secularists

The football program at my beloved alma mater, Clemson University, has become the target of legal threats by the militant secularist/atheist group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation. This group trolls about the country, looking for evidences of religion in public life, and threatening lawsuits whenever such evidences are discovered.

Clemson’s coach Dabo Swinney is an outspoken Christian, who is accused of employing a chaplain, sharing Scripture with his players, and inviting players to church. This pattern of behavior, the FFRF contends, is inappropriate for a public university employee, and violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

We might laugh off the FFRF’s threats as typical secularist hi-jinks, except that threatening lawsuits has become the most successful approach for secularists over the past fifty years, and it has scored incremental victories to restrict religious speech and the free exercise of religion. In the absence of legislative or popular support for their agenda, they intimidate public employees into silence, and occasionally find sympathetic judges to agree with their peculiar interpretation of the First Amendment.

Clemson, says the FFRF, is exhibiting an institutional preference for “religion over nonreligion.” I suspect many Clemson alumni might chuckle at that one. I, like most public university students, took classes with a number of Clemson professors (including at least one religion professor) who were overtly hostile to faith perspectives, and who obviously preferenced nonreligion over religion. I had two professors at Clemson who, by contrast, spoke directly about their faith as Christians. No problem – at a university, it is ok to have different perspectives represented. I don’t recall that the FFRF has ever sued a university, Clemson  or others, for preferencing nonreligion over religion because of the views of a secularist professor…and it never occurred to me to seek a lawsuit because of the times when I did not share the opinion of such secularist professors.

Sports teams are, of course, very different settings from a university classroom. Any coach worth his or her salt is not only trying to win games, but to invest in the lives of players. For people of faith, such investments naturally mean directing players to one’s own faith. As a matter of propriety, Clemson officials should expect that Coach Swinney not be rude or discriminatory toward his players, but this is a requirement that should apply on a whole range of issues (politics, ethnicity, etc.), not just faith. Fairness makes for good education, business, and manners.

Clemson’s players choose to go there, and many of them do so precisely because of the sort of person that Dabo Swinney is. These players are adults, and as highly recruited athletes, they have a number of options of where to go. Construing Swinney’s actions as a violation of the First Amendment (only of the establishment clause, of course – secularists are less keen on the requirements of “free exercise”) shows just how warped the secularist reading of religious freedom has become.

To the Founders, an “establishment of religion” meant a tax-supported denomination like the Church of England, not the public presence of religion. The Founders employed chaplains in Congress and in the army, and routinely welcomed prayers (and even sermons) in government venues. Dabo Swinney is on solid constitutional ground when he represents his faith today at Clemson University.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Nathaniel

    Ah, “militant” Atheists. Gotta love it. Where people of other religious beliefs have to be violent or kill people, all an atheist has got to do is openly advocate for their views.

  • Chris Clayton

    In 1963 by an 8-1 vote, Bible reading in public schools were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. 8-1! To say “Dabo Swinney is on solid constitutional ground” is a reach. I know many want religion everywhere, but the separation of state and church principle that is found in the first amendment says otherwise.

  • John Turner

    I would agree that the ground isn’t “solid,” but uncertain.

    The Courts have made a distinction between, for instance, prayers at public school graduations and prayers at college commencement ceremonies (the reasoning was a bit twisted). However, perhaps one need be less concerned about a praying football coach (a voluntary activity to begin with) than about classroom prayer.

  • Chris Clayton

    Perhaps. Graduation prayers are restricted to students. If some Clemson football players started a prayer club, it would be legal (perhaps unhealthy, if coercive, but legal). A football coach that is active in his church off the field is also fine. But, this case seems to be more problematic.

    That said, I will back off my claim too and say that it is uncertain given that it has not come up in court rulings in this particular form as far as I know.

  • Football isn’t as voluntary as you think. There are a lot of players there that simply wouldn’t be at the university if it were for the scholarships offered. So if they walking away from a team prayer and a coach-lead prayer at that, they might be walking away from the college as a whole.

  • Heck, you don’t even have to be an atheist to be a “militant Atheist.” All you have to do is say that the government and government paid employees shouldn’t be preaching, and poof, you’re a militant atheist.

  • Grotoff

    A person in a position of power manipulates the young men under him and it’s totally fine because he’s doing it for Christianity? You would feel the same if he was pushing Islam on his players?

  • ortcutt

    Christians don’t have to worry about that because they wouldn’t even hire a Muslim football coach. It’s one of the advantages of Christian Privilege, the assurance that if the government is used to promote any religion, it’s definitely going to be Christianity.

  • Satori

    His actions are clearly unconstitutional under Sante Fe Independent School District vs Doe.

  • Satori
  • John Turner

    I still suggest that the Court may view college activities differently than high school activities. Since the Court hasn’t ruled on this specific issue, we cannot be certain.

  • Rick

    Thank you for bringing up the professor aspect. It seems assumed that some professors do that, and that it (openly expressing opinions) is part of the college atmosphere. Why the football coach is being held to a different standard, even though he too is a employee of that same school/system, is very telling.

  • Brian Westley

    Clemson’s players choose to go there, and many of them do so precisely because of the sort of person that Dabo Swinney is.

    Public universities CANNOT have a football team that is only open to students who meet the religious approval of the coach. Period.

  • disqus_9xDKwRFcht

    Those two statements are completely different. Players choosing to go somewhere because of the coach and the the school only allowing certain students to attend are different.

  • disqus_9xDKwRFcht

    Would it be constitutional for somebody to use a position of power/influece to advocate nonreligion? What would the difference be between a college employee (professor, coach, dean) openly advocating atheism to one openly advocating Islam or Judaism or Christianity or Shintoism?

  • Brian Westley

    Not attend, but be on the football team. Being preached at by the coach can’t be a condition of playing on the team at a public university.

    The real choice here is Swinney’s; if he wants to preach, he has the choice to work at a private university.

  • Brian Westley

    Legally, no difference.

  • disqus_9xDKwRFcht

    I appreciate the clarification. Meeting the religious approval and signing up to be preached at are different. And I agree with the assessment that players should not be forced to hear him preach.

    I do wonder where the line is drawn. Can the coach invite players to attend or participate a discussion of faith that the coach leads? Can the coach invite players to his/her house where religious paraphernalia is conspicuous? Can a coach tell players that faith is important to him, but not preach? On the other side, could a non-Christian coach openly discuss opposition to Christianity? Could a coach prescribe situational ethics as a means of player development, and if so how is that different from a coach prescribing a Christian ethic?