Freedom from Religion Foundation Files Complaint Against Clemson

Brian LeighFeatured Columnist IVApril 5, 2017

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JANUARY 03: Head coach Dabo Swinney of the Clemson Tigers holds up an orange after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes during the Discover Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium on January 3, 2014 in Miami Gardens, Florida. Clemson defeated Ohio State 40-35. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a complaint against Clemson University, arguing that head football coach Dabo Swinney and his staff have failed to create a clear separation between church and state.


Update: Wednesday, April 23 – 10:30 a.m. ET

Swinney has broken his silence on the religious complaint, releasing the following statement, per Heather Dinich of

Over the past week or two, there has been a lot of discussion of my faith. We have three rules in our program that everybody must follow: (1) players must go to class, (2) they must give a good effort and (3) they must be good citizens. It is as simple as that. 

I have recruited and coached players of many different faiths. Players of any faith or no faith at all are welcome in our program. All we require in the recruitment of any player is that he must be a great player at his position, meet the academic requirements, and have good character. 

Recruiting is very personal. Recruits and their families want -- and deserve -- to know who you are as a person, not just what kind of coach you are. I try to be a good example to others, and I work hard to live my life according to my faith. I am proud of the great success we have had in developing good players and good men at Clemson. We win at the highest level and we graduate players who excel on the field and in life because of their time in Death Valley. I want to thank Clemson University and all the people who have reached out to offer their support and encouragement over the past few weeks.

We'll keep you updated if/when the FFRF responds.



According to Mandrallius Robinson of The Greenville Newsthe foundation submitted an open records request in February and reviewed a number of emails and documents about the team. "What we have observed in the records," said foundation staff attorney Patrick Elliott, "is that the football coaching staff is doing a number of things to promote Christianity to their student-athletes."

A long list of claims can be found on the FFRF's website, including the following complaints about team chaplain James Trapp:

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.

This is not the first time Clemson has made news for overly Christian activity. Brad Wolverton of The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote a long story in November about the role of religion at Clemson, which included the claim that Swinney tells high school recruits, "I'm a Christian. If you have a problem with that, you don't have to be here."

Also mentioned in Wolverton's story was the anecdote about star receiver DeAndre Hopkins being baptized in front of the team in 2012. Wide receivers coach Jeff Scott tweeted out a photo of the baptism, calling it the highlight of his week:

The FFRF is not calling for Swinney's head but rather for a reformed agenda. Its own statement on the matter said it "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."

Clemson University spokesperson Cathy Sams responded with the following statement, per Andrea Adelson of

Participation in religious activities is purely voluntary, and there are no repercussions for students who decline to do so. We are not aware of any complaints from current or former student-athletes about feeling pressured or forced to participate in religious activities.

Appalachian State received a similar complaint, for proselytizing student-athletes, from the FFRF in 2012. According to the foundation's website, the matter was brought to the university's general counsel, which responded in affirmation by saying the proselytizing had "no legitimate place in the University’s athletic programs."

According to Adelson, Swinney has not been made available to comment on the issue. We'll keep you updated once he has.


Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT