Clemson University head football coach Dabo Swinney should not appear at a fundraiser for a South Carolina group that opposes gay marriage, the top Democrat in the S.C. House said Friday.
Swinney is scheduled to appear June 2 at the Columbia event for the Palmetto Family Council, a conservative advocacy group that opposes same-sex marriage and abortion and often allies itself with South Carolina Republicans.
“I find it highly inappropriate that Coach Swinney would appear at a fundraiser for an organization that is so openly discriminatory and politically motivated,” state Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said in a statement. “I cannot fathom why Coach Swinney or anyone else would knowingly assist a group whose mission is to fight against equal rights and equal treatment of others.”
Palmetto Family Council President Oran Smith said Swinney will be honored at the event for his Christian testimony, adding there is not a legal, political or any other reason for honoring Swinney.
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“Like any other South Carolina citizen, he should be free to speak where he would like to,” said Smith, who has led the Palmetto Family Council for 14 years.
Jeff Ayers, of S.C. Equality, said he is disappointed Swinney is accepting an invitation to appear at a fundraiser for an organization that has been outspoken against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
“It’s sending the wrong message to the LGBT students and faculty and supporters of Clemson,” Ayers said.
At the event, the Palmetto Family Council also will recognize “faithful defenders of religious liberty in South Carolina,” at least one of whom is “a prominent Gamecock,” according to the organization’s Facebook page.
Smith said that statement is referencing Gamecock fan Solicitor General Bob Cook, who co-wrote a legal brief regarding public prayer.
USC athletics director Ray Tanner previously has spoken to the organization, according to a photograph on the Palmetto Family Council’s website.
The photo is from an event at which Tanner’s foundation was recognized for its work on behalf of economically and medically disadvantaged children in South Carolina, said USC spokesman Wes Hickman.
Swinney, like Tanner, is a state-paid employee, Rutherford, the House minority leader, noted. “As a state employee, national figure and role model to kids all over the state, coach Swinney should send a message that he has zero tolerance for discrimination and cancel his appearance.”
Clemson spokeswoman Robin Denny said Swinney was notified several months ago that he would receive an award from the Palmetto Family Council, based on personal factors, including the work of his foundation. “As far as we can surmise it is not a speaking engagement, merely an acceptance of an award.”
Other state-paid employees – from Gov. Nikki Haley to Attorney General Alan Wilson, both Lexington Republicans, to legislators – have been outspoken in their opposition to gay marriage as well.
House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, defended Swinney.
A state employee – whether a head football coach, head baseball coach or director of an agency – does not give up their right to free speech, he said.
“Dabo Swinney has been nothing but professional and positive,” Bannister said. “The fact that he has a very strong faith and wants to talk about it on his time is absolutely appropriate and acceptable.”
The national organization the Family Research Council lists the Palmetto Family Council as a South Carolina state association on its website. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the Family Research Council as an anti-gay lobby and hate group.
Palmetto Family Council’s Smith helped craft South Carolina’s 2006 gay-marriage ban amendment.
Swinney said in an interview last year that he played football with gay teammates when he played as a wide receiver at the University of Alabama, according to a CBS Sports article about the interview.
“Those are personal decisions that people have to make,” Swinney said in the interview. “I mean everyone will be judged one day, but it’s not up to me to judge somebody.”