CLEMSON, SC -- The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent a letter of complaint to Clemson University, citing "constitutional concerns about how the public university's football program is entangled with religion."
According to the foundation, Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney has promoted a culture in the program that violates constitutional stipulations of the separation of church and state.
A spokesman for the athletic department declined to comment on the letter. Cathy Sams, the university's chief public affairs officer, said her department has not completed its review of the letter but said Swinney hasn't forced his religion onto his players.
"I can't comment on any of the specifics in the letter or any of the specific concerns," Sams said. "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 foundation said it had submitted an open records request in February and reviewed emails and published articles.
The foundation, a national nonprofit educational charity based in Madison, Wis., says it is the nation's largest association of atheists and agnostics. According to Elliott, the organization does not intend to infringe on Swinney's beliefs, but to ensure that the players' constitutional rights are protected.
The foundation has recommended the elimination of Clemson's chaplaincy position, currently held by former Clemson player James Trapp. It contends that Swinney and Trapp have used their positions in the program to proselytize, by arranging Bible studies, organizing devotionals and distributing Bibles and other religious materials.
"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."
Elliott said people who are employed by the government have a right to express their personal beliefs, "but there's appropriate channels for that."
"He has every right to be a religious person and to engage in these activities. 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."
Elliott said the foundation aims to avoid additional litigation.
"That doesn't serve anyone's interests. I'd rather see government fix these problems," Elliott said.