Hey, guess what? It really is possible for a journalist to report on the Freedom From Religion Foundation in a fair, insightful way.
In a post earlier this month, I made the case that “regurgitating the anti-religion group’s talking points as if they’re the gospel truth is not great journalism.”
Leave it to a sports writer, of all people, to show a better way of handling a story involving the FFRF.
I missed the following Sports Illustrated piece when it came out a few weeks ago, but it’s a terrific read — both for college football fans and those who follow religion news. I’m talking about Tim Rohan’s deep dive into “Faith, Football and the Fervent Religious Culture at Dabo Swinney's Clemson.”
GetReligion readers may recall that we noted in January, “Yes, there's a Jesus angle — and a Chick-fil-A one — in Clemson's football national title.”
In his SI feature, Rohan sets the scene this way:
On a hot, muggy day in August 2012, as Clemson football practice came to an end, coach Dabo Swinney gathered everyone for his closing remarks. Some players noticed a few Rubbermaid troughs stationed about and figured they were heading for the cold tubs. Instead, Swinney announced that one of their teammates, star receiver DeAndre Hopkins, would be getting baptized on the field. Everyone was invited to stay and watch.
Few players or coaches left, if any. They gathered around one of the tubs, which was filled with water, and Hopkins climbed in, still dressed in his jersey and pads. Jesus is the most important thing in my life, Hopkins said, and I want you guys to know I’m living for him. A pastor from NewSpring, a local Baptist church, baptized him, and the crowd cheered.
One assistant coach was so moved by the scene, he snapped a photo of Hopkins in the tub and tweeted it out. The photo caught the media’s attention and made national headlines. After that, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a nonprofit organization that promotes the separation of church and state, received at least three complaints about the Clemson football program. The following year, in the fall of 2013, The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote a story examining Clemson’s religious culture, highlighting Hopkins’s baptism again, and the FFRF received two more complaints. They were coming from alumni and people in the Clemson community.
At that point, Patrick Elliott, an FFRF attorney, opened an investigation and, in April 2014, sent Clemson a letter noting that the First Amendment prohibited the school, as a public institution, from supporting, promoting or endorsing religion. The letter asked Clemson to stop its team prayers, Bible studies and organized church trips.
Charles Haynes, the founding director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute, a nonpartisan organization that educates the public on First Amendment issues, recently reviewed the FFRF’s claims against Clemson. “I don’t think this is a close case,” he says. “Clemson University is clearly violating the First Amendment.”