Saturday, December 1, 2007

Picking Your Battles Carefully

Clemson University's head football coach, Tommy Bowden, has drawn the attention of the ACLU, because of the coach's annual team activity, "Church Day". This event, which has occurred annually for the last several years, is an activity where the entire team attends services at a different local church. Attendance is voluntary, but is “strongly” recommended. Those who do not wish to attend must publicly opt out; simply not showing up is not considered acceptable.

In a letter to the president of Clemson, which is a state-supported university, the vice president of the state ACLU stated, "“My belief as I understand things, the way it’s set up has an element of coercion to it,” he said. “Whether it’s intended or not, we’re concerned that the head coach of a nationally-visible football team strongly encourages people to do things and in the context of all his athletes, says, ‘You really ought to do this unless you want to stick your neck out and say no.'" He also urged that the activity be eliminated.

Clemson's response was not to ban Church Day, but neither will it provide university-owned and operated buses for the event. Those who attend must use their own vehicles.

I'm of two minds on this. Though I'm an agnostic, I see this as a minor thing, not really worth expending time and effort to fight. Clemson University has ensured that the activity is voluntary and has not allowed the use of its tax-supported resources (buses and drivers), which I think is a valid compromise.

But I can also see the ACLU's point. Though attendance is voluntary, requiring players to publicly opt out, is to compel them to publicly take a stand on an issue (religious belief or lack thereof) that they might prefer to remain private. And it's the coach's job to train and mold the students as football players -- it's not his place to mold or influence their religious or spiritual beliefs.

But, in the end, I think the ACLU would have done better to pick their battles more carefully. South Carolina is a conservative, highly religious red state, and the ACLU's criticism of Bowden has only so far served to draw sympathy for him and to bring all the "Christianity is under attack" wingnuts out of the woodwork.


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