Unclear on the concept

Somehow I didn't find out about this story about a football coach who resigned because the school district ordered him not to lead his team in prayer at dinners before each game until several days after it had happened. Consequently, I had been debating about whether or not to write about it, its being old news and all. Then I learned that the coach rescinded his resignation before the school board could accept it and is considering legal action. That was the excuse I needed to discuss this case. (Also, I needed a brief break from medblogging, hence the topics of the last couple of days.)

Here's what happened:
But the controversy that led to Borden’s resignation actually started two weeks ago.

According to Patricia LaDuca, a spokeswoman for the district, Schools Superintendent Jo Ann Magistro started hearing rumblings on Sept. 29 about some concerns regarding Borden leading his team in prayer prior to every game.

“And not just from one source,” LaDuca said. “People from both sides of the issue were bringing this to Dr. Magistro’s attention. Students were even approaching staff members about it.”

Magistro acted quickly on the matter.

“As soon as she got the first inquiry about it, she immediately contacted Board of Education attorney Martin Pachman to find out what needed to be done,” LaDuca said. “She did her homework before she even contacted Marcus about it.”

It was a week before Pachman got back to Magistro, according to LaDuca, and when he did, he informed her that if indeed Borden was initiating a prayer with his players, he was doing so in direct violation of the guidelines set forth by the Supreme Court of the United States.
Magistro discussed the matter with Borden and later that same day:
Following the meeting, Borden, who could not be reached for comment by press time despite repeated attempts, told Magistro that he needed to think about the issue.

“He gave no indication that he wouldn’t show up for the dinner or the game,” LaDuca said.

But that is exactly what he did. While the Bear players and coaching staff met for their team dinner at 3:30 p.m. that afternoon in the high school cafeteria, Borden was not among them. Assistant coach Glenn Pazinko was left in charge, and with no information regarding the guidelines earlier explained to Borden, did not lead the players in saying grace, as they were accustomed to doing each week.

This led to some misinformation, according to LaDuca, with some parents becoming outraged, claiming the players were told not to pray.

“The kids were standing there waiting for someone to lead them in prayer, when the coach told them to sit down and eat,” she said. “Nobody told them they couldn’t pray. In fact, before the game started, the players did pray.”

At 5:50 p.m., East Brunswick Athletic Director Frank Noppenberger received an e-mail from Borden in which he resigned his position as head coach. In that e-mail, the coach informed the longtime AD that his resignation was effective immediately, and was apologetic that it couldn’t wait until the end of the season.

Unfortunately, Noppenberger did not know about the e-mail until after the game, leaving the players and fans in the dark regarding Borden’s decision to resign. While Pazinko went on to lead the Bears during their 21-0 loss to Sayreville, Borden’s decision not to address his players before the game left many players confused and disappointed, according to LaDuca.
The story actually made national headlines, being reported by ESPN and the Chicago Tribune, among others. Bordon was unapologetic, saying that he resigned on principle and that he had made the right decision.

Well, apparently he's reversed himself:
East Brunswick High School football coach Marcus Borden, who stepped down on Oct. 7 hours after school officials told him he could no longer initiate or participate in team prayer, rescinded his resignation and returned to his players yesterday.

Borden, who had until Thursday — the next Board of Education meeting — to rescind his resignation, said the abrupt reversal of field should not be construed as a change in his game plan.

"I have strong beliefs and principles," Borden said. "I don't want anybody to think that I backed down on them."

Borden's lawyer, Ronald J. Riccio, rescinded the coach's 10-day-old resignation in a letter to school board attorney Martin Pachman. A constitutional law expert and former dean of Seton Hall Law School, Riccio is representing Borden pro bono through the university's Center For Social Justice.

"You can't fight the fight unless you're in the ring," Riccio said, explaining why he advised Borden to return to the sidelines. "He is making sure that his ability to challenge the district's policy remains alive. You can't challenge something if it no longer injures you."
Apparently Borden has had some second thoughts and has been persuaded that his not being allowed to lead his team in prayer somehow violates his First Amendment rights. It is not. He is perfectly free to practice his Catholic faith publicly and proselytize to his heart's content outside of his job. He just can't lead prayers while on the job. I can't imagine how the legal action he is considering would go anywhere.

Before I go on, let's get one thing straight here. From everything I can gather from the news reports. Borden sounds like a hell of a great guy. He's a hell of a coach, and his players respect and admire him. He is the AFCA's 2004 national Power of Influence Award winner and has received USA Today magazine's 2003 national Caring Coach of the Year award. He also founded the Snapple Bowl, a charity all-star high school football game that has raised more than $150,000 for physically and mentally impaired children. Nonetheless, he's wrong about this one thing. I would hope that even a highly religious person like Borden could see why it is a bad idea for an authority figure, a representative of the state like a teacher and a football coach, to lead prayers in state-sponsored events.

What I find particularly interesting about this story is where it happened. East Brunswick, like much of central Jersey, is highly diverse. In fact, East Brunswick has a very large Jewish population, so much so that it is not at all uncommon to see advertisements for houses for sale emphasize that they are within walking distance of a synagogue, so that observant Jews can walk to temple on the Sabbath. There are also very large Indian and Pakistani populations in this area, with lesser--but still significant--Chinese populations here, mainly because of nearby Rutgers University and a number of large pharmaceutical companies in the area. Indeed, it is not at all unusual to see Sikhs wearing turbans working at various establishments in the area, particularly convenience stores and gas stations.

It's surprising that, in the bluest part of one of the bluest of the blue states, an area that is overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic in its politics, this is even an issue. You'd expect this sort of thing to be happening in the South or even parts of the Midwest, but not in central New Jersey. And, even in New Jersey, public sentiment is much more in favor of the coach's stand than of the school's:
According to LaDuca, the board has been inundated with e-mails from people supporting Borden, many of whom feel he should be able to pray with his team, even though it violates federal law, and would subject the district to litigation.

There have not been many messages supporting Magistro’s actions.
Worse, the students who initially expressed their concerns about Borden have been taunted and bullied by Borden's supporters, despite an effort by the school to educate

The fact that it is happening in East Brunswick and that the vast majority of people appear to be lining up behind the coach shows how little people understand how the Constitutional prohibition against the establishment of religion protects all of us. Representatives of the state leading groups of students in prayer is a clear violation of the Establishment clause. Oddly enough, via Atheism Guide, I came across an evangelical Christian writing at the extremely conservative WorldNet Daily (usually not dubbed "Wingnut Daily" for nothing) about having to endure a pregame Buddhist prayer actually nails why state-sponsored prayer is a threat to our freedom of religion:

Coming from a fairly traditional Southern upbringing, I was not at all initially surprised when a voice came over the PA and asked everyone to rise for the invocation. I had been through this same ritual at many other high-school events and thought nothing of it, so to our feet my wife and I stood, bowed our heads, and prepared to partake of the prayer. But to our extreme dismay, the clergyman who took the microphone and began to pray was not a Protestant minister or a Catholic priest, but a Buddhist priest who proceeded to offer up prayers and intonations to god-head figures that our tradition held to be pagan.

We were frozen in shock and incredulity! What to do? To continue to stand and observe this prayer would represent a betrayal of our own faith and imply the honoring of a pagan deity that was anathema to our beliefs. To sit would be an act of extreme rudeness and disrespect in the eyes of our Japanese hosts and neighbors, who value above all other things deference and respect in their social interactions. I am sorry to say that in the confusion of the moment we chose the easier path and elected to continue to stand in silence so as not to create a scene or ill will among those who were seated nearby.

As I thought through the incident over the next few days I supposed that the duty of offering the pre-game prayer rotated through the local clergy and we just happened to arrive on the night that the responsibility fell to the Buddhist priest. However, after inquiring I learned that due to the predominance of Buddhist and Shinto adherents in this town, it was the normal practice to have a member of one these faiths offer the pre-game prayer, and Christian clergy were never included.
Although this story sounds a little dubious to me, even if not true it drives the point home. Or imagine another scenario: You are a football player. You are right on the borderline of getting to play or warming the bench. Some games you play; some games you warm the bench. Like most players, you want to get in the game, but to get in the game you have to impress your coach. Now, add this to the mix: You are a Buddhist or believe in some other non-Judeo-Christian religious belief system, like Shintoism. Or you're an atheist. Praying to the Judeo-Christian God is highly offensive to you, for whatever reason. Now, imagine this: At the dinner before each game, your coach leads the team in a prayer. It is claimed that you are perfectly free not to participate. But are you really? How many teenagers, desperate for approval of their coach, would have the intestinal fortitude to draw attention to themselves by refusing to participate, risking the disapproval of the man who decides whether or not they get to play or not or even whether or not they are good enough to be on the team?

But don't listen to me; listen to the same evangelical Christian above:
We often advocate the practice of Judeo-Christian rituals in America's public schools by hiding behind the excuse that they are voluntary and any student who doesn't wish to participate can simply remained seated and silent. Oh that this were true. But if I, as a mature adult, would be so confounded and uncomfortable when faced with the decision of observing and standing on my own religious principals or run the risk of offending the majority crowd, I can only imagine what thoughts and confusion must run through the head of the typical child or teenager, for whom peer acceptance is one of the highest ideals.
Unfortunately, the very observation that in one of the most strongly liberal and Democratic parts of the U.S., public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of someone like Coach Borden, who flouts the separation of church and state, shows that the U.S. has a long way to go in understanding why this separation is necessary to protect freedom of religion (or from religion) for all. One can only imagine how such a scenario would play out in Mississippi or Arkansas.


  1. Good post. It is - to me - interesting what it seems to say about your own 'ideological' viewpoint and sympathies, though - you unabashed old liberal you:)

    (Yes, I know you've explained before that it is economically that you describe yourself as conservative, but your expression of surprise that such ill-informed attitutes are surprising in so blue a state - and the implicit message that they would be expected in a red state - was too tempting to leave alone...)

  2. Aside from the ease with which many people can be aroused to religious prejudice, I think the problem here is that the legal issue is hard to explain. When he says, "The state won't let me pray with my students!" many people instinctively perceive this as an infringement of religion -- "This is America! How can you stop him from praying!" The reason that halting this pre-game prayer is, in fact, the opposite of religious persecution takes a bit of explanation. Given the lack of intellectual curiosity that afflicts so much of the population, it's really not surprising that people are content to run with their knee-jerk first impressions. Lawyers on the news are boring . . . and everybody hates lawyers.

  3. Curious indeed, that the first commenter connects religious issues with "red" and "blue" states.

    There has long been what we might call a "non-Christian" meanness in many of the devout practitioners.

    I grew up in a Catholic family in what was by far a predominantly Protestant small town -- all the in-town churches were Protestant. The most prominent local church (of which my grandmother was a member) would have dinners for the public to attend. Their sausage suppers were always on Fridays (then meatless for Catholics), and fish fry's never on Fridays. Of course, it was perfectly within their rights to do so, yet it represents one of the many ways that people of faith "stick it" to non-members. It's lucky we weren't Jewish.

    I was raised to be respectful of others' religions, which means you don't shove your own beliefs at anyone else. There is still plenty of room to practice your own faith devoutly.

  4. Dammit, Orac, I hate it when you write something sensible. As a relatively enlightened christian in the South, I have always had a difficult time reminding folks that pesky First Amendment not only keeps religion out of our government, it also makes sure government stays clear of our religion. Down here, we're just starting to see the religious diversity that brings with it the realization that we're not just a Judeo-Christian population. The separation of church and state is more than a laudable legal concept that prevents faith-based discrimination; it fosters a society where all feel that their individual contributions are welcome.

  5. Tatannelise put it very well. The superficial knee-jerk tendency is to take an example of someone actively using government means to practice and promote their religion and reframe it simplistically as a case of government actively preventing a citizen from practicing and promoting their religion. The children were not forbidden from praying before the game. The coach was not forbidden from praying before the game. But the coach cannot pray before the game *as if it were part of his role as coach*. It's an important distinction which is often missed -- till someone experiences it as the outsider.

    Incidently, this is a trivial example to add to your list, but on Survivor last week one of the contestants revealed to the camera that he isn't at all religious, but feels he has to fake piety and pretend to go along with the pre-meal group prayer thanking Jesus because he has a pretty shrewd idea that refusing to do so could eventually get him kicked off at Tribal Council. He's probably right.

  6. I wouldn't go so far as to say that "public sentiment is much more in favor of the coach's stand than of the school's" (although I don't live in New Jersey, so I could be wrong). There's huge reporting bias going on there, if you're only counting the number of people who voluntarily emailed the school officials. Of course more people who feel passionately about their religion are going to send in complaints than people who think the school is just doing its job. Still, it's a little scary that many voting-age people don't understand the establishment clause.


  7. I feel increasingly alienated in this country. I do not think "under God" is OK in the Pledge. I do not think sending MY tax dollars to "faith based initiatives" is morally any better than using them to build nuclear weapons. For that matter, I do not like "no child left behind" because it sets impossible standards for public schools so as to favor private schools. I DO NOT appreciate the 10 Commandments hanging in court rooms (public stoning was also a popular Biblical example of jurisprudence; nowadays we settle for the electric chair). I do NOT believe women should cede control of their bodies because some misogynist in Rome (or Kansas) has a fetus fetish. I do not think people with the misfortune of being born gay are bad people. I do not think that teaching that mankind came about in a poof of smoke in the garden of Eden will benefit our economic competitiveness vs countries that are pushing Biotech, Like Singapore, Korea, and China. In short, I wish America was WAY more like our mostly atheist/agnostic/deist forefathers intended it (at least on church/state matters).

  8. I grew up in New Jersey, and always had trouble with the Christian religion being forced on students. Bear in mind I'm saying this, and I was brought up Catholic. My high school was comprised of 30 percent Jewish students, and Christmas time was always a problem. Teachers would subject the Jewish students to Christmas decorations, table-top Christmas trees, Santa, and Christmas gift exchanges and grab bags--even though they didn't practice Christmas. The Menorah was not equally displayed, and Channakuh only got a brief, passing mention, at best. There was also a good percentage of Jehovah's Witnesses at my high school that would miss a lot of classwork because their parents asked to excuse their kids from classes where teachers forced Christmas on them. I felt that year after year Christmas was being forced on people who didn't want to participate in this holiday. Also, the same deal with Easter, Easter eggs, the Easter bunny, and Good Friday. Jewish holidays got little or no attention, while Christian holidays were prominent and forced upon people.
    If this teacher wants to pray with his team, then he really should be asking for a job at a private Christian school. Then he can pray all he wants with people who are on the same page as he is. As for me, I lost faith in Christianity altogether because most believers participate in cult-like endeavors, like forcing people to believe; condemning those who don't believe; putting shame and guilt on people who don't convert etc., etc.

  9. I couldn't agree more with you - religion is private. In addition, I haven't seen one country yet where the lack of separation between church and state generated a positive effect.

    But these days in America, you can never know: intelligent design/creationism is being taught in science class; we have a Supreme Court nominee who has been nominated in part because of the role religion plays in her life (and some are asking, what's the other part); we have Palm Sunday compromises and so forth.

  10. Actually, the WorldNut column was based in Hawai'i, and the Japanese-American (there are very few first-generation immigrants at this point, but if he doesn't say "Japanese" then he undercuts Malkin and the other pro-internment columnists WorldNut promotes) population (which is over 1/3 of the state population) has mostly stayed with the Buddhist/Shinto traditions of their homeland. I don't have the numbers at hand, but I suspect that the Japanese-American community on Oahu isn't more than 1/3 to 1/2 Christian, and there certainly could be pockets where it's considerably lower.

  11. I find it ludicrous to equate Buddhism with Paganism. Buddhism is primarily devoted to the extinguishing of the "self" through meditation. There are plenty of deities in Buddhist art, but faith, devotion, and belief are way lower in priority than meditation.

    Besides: let us not knock Pagans. They gave us Christmas trees, and, ceratinly, some of the best Christmas carols.

  12. I wonder to what extent it depends on the method of prayer used for each religion. For example, if they would stop football practice and start kneeling in the direction of Mecca, you'd see who is and who's not participating quickly. However, in the Christian prayers (and I'd imagine in the Buddhist prayers as well), for one to sit there silent does not demonstrate involvement in the prayer at all. I'm just suggesting that the tit-for-tat ideal is probably not particularly effective in this situation (if this idea is the problem, we should probably for example, focus more on stopping "voluntary" practices during times when real practices aren't allowed). Anyway...just a thought.


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