Secularist Group: Clemson Prayer Lawsuit Stories Inaccurate, Inflammatory

According to a secularist group, the Clemson prayer lawsuit that has been the subject of much speculation this week is actually little more than speculation, and misinformation — some of it intentional, an attorney for the group believes. The agency in question is the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is based in Wisconsin but has members across the nation. The lawsuit in question would be over policies and programs that might coerce players (students) into religious activities against their own preferences.

The initial report came from Breitbart, and described the FFRF as “look[ing] to take on Clemson over [Coach Swinney’s] Christian faith.”

In a post on the FFRF’s Freethought Now blog, staff attorney Patrick Elliott called the author a “tea partier play[ing] journalist,” and objected to portrayals of specific facts about the hypothetical case:

  • As asserted, the secularist group does believe that certain activities (such as coach involvement in team prayer) at Clemson violate the First Amendment’s separation clause. However, there is no lawsuit imminent.
  • When the FFRF opens a lawsuit, it is always with a complainant who is expected to have standing in the case — that is, someone affected by the policy in question. There is no such current complainant over the Clemson prayer controversy, and Elliott, according to Christian News Wire, has explicitly stated that the secularist group is not seeking one, though the FFRF might act on behalf of a complainant if one came forward.

Secularist group has no prayer lawsuit against Clemson.
According to AL, the one action that the FFRF has taken is to send information to students regarding their rights at a secular university.

The FFRF has also made clear that the lawsuit would not be about Coach Swinney’s faith, but about activities they say pushes that faith on students. Listing such incidents in a 2014 complaint, the group contends that the Clemson coach, among other things:

    • personally picked a team chaplain (which violates Clemson’s own policy, according to USA Today: students are to be allowed to select chaplains themselves)
    • scheduled team devotionals
    • provided the chaplain with access to team members during practices and between drills

None of the secularist organization’s complaints addresses Swinney’s own faith, only incidents regarding students.

One allegation is that Clemson players may be pressured or coerced into attending church days, prayer breakfasts, and other religious activities centered around Coach Swinney’s own beliefs. Below, see Swinney introducing Clemson players at the Orange Bowl prayer breakfast in December.

At that annual event, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes

“…honors student-athletes, coaches and communities that are committed to making a difference in young people’s lives through faith and fellowship.”

A prayer lawsuit regarding Clemson University coach isn't as represented, says FFRF
      According to both Swinney and the FFRF, Clemson has changed little if any of its prayer practices and policies since the complaint in 2014.

In response to that complaint, Sports On Earth credits Swinney with a thought experiment explaining that recruiting students goes far better when telling a worried mother that he, as coach, is a Christian and that God blessed her child with talent, and promised to make Bible study available to the young recruit, than if he instead said he was an atheist and promised to make the teen a part of a winning football team.

Neither Swinney nor any official representative for Clemson University has offered any response to the current controversy, however, which may be in part due to exactly what FFRF’s Patrick Elliott declared about the allegations: at this time, the secularist group has no Clemson prayer lawsuit underway, nor is one in the works or in any planning stage.

[Photo by Harry How/Getty Images]