- Associated Press - Thursday, May 1, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - An attorney for Clemson University wrote that the Freedom From Religion Foundation had misstated the law in its complaint that Tigers coach Dabo Swinney intertwines his Christian religion with the football program.

The school’s senior associate counsel Erin Swann Lauderdale sent a letter dated April 24 in reply to the FFRF’s complaint. A copy of the letter was obtained by The Associated Press.

Swann’s response to FFRF staff attorney Patrick Elliott said her initial review of the letter showed, “it is clear that you have misconstrued important facts and made incorrect statements of the law.”

The group, based in Madison, Wisconsin, sent its complaints this month. According to the foundation, Swinney has promoted a culture in the program that promotes Christianity and violates constitutional guidelines against publicly funded institutions endorsing religion or engaging in religious exercises.

The foundation’s complaint, sent to the university last month, said Swinney selected James Trapp as team chaplain, which it believed violated Clemson’s guidelines. Other issues the group cited were Trapp having an office in an athletic building and being given access to the “entire football team in between drills for the purpose of bible study.”

The foundation also said Swinney and staff members were coercive when asking the entire team to attend a Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast in 2011, organizing team devotionals or taking the team and staff to church services as it says occurred several times.

“The nonreligious and non-Christian student athletes who come through Clemson’s football program deserve to have their rights of conscience protected,” Elliott wrote.

But Clemson’s response states the Supreme Court has upheld the right of public bodies to employ chaplains and has noted that using prayer “is not in conflict with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.”

Swinney said last week he has coached players of all faiths or no faith at all and welcomed them to his team. He did not expect to change his practices in light of the complaint.

Lauderdale said that Clemson continually reviews its programs to ensure the wellbeing of students and keep compliant with Constitutional requirements. She said the school would include the FFRF’s concerns in future reviews.

On Thursday, Elliott called for Clemson to do a thorough review of the football program and its ties to religion. “As it stands, we have no confidence that the university has ended endorsement of Christianity to student athletes by coaches,” he said.

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