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Austin Cline

Coach Will Fight to Promote His Religious Beliefs in School

By October 18, 2005

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Marcus Borden, the high school football coach I wrote about the other day who resigned rather than obey the law and not initiate team prayers, has decided not to resign after all. He also doesn't intend to follow the law, either, and may make a court challenge. Borden argues that he has a right as a state employee to promote his religious beliefs to his students.

The Home News Tribune reports:

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

It’s a shame that respecting the law and respecting the religious beliefs of others aren’t apparently among his “strong beliefs and principles.”

For the past 22 seasons, Borden conducted team prayer at pregame meals and before opening kickoffs. It’s a tradition Borden said preceded his tenure at East Brunswick. “I firmly believe in what our traditions are,” said Borden... Borden refers to East Brunswick’s nonsectarian pregame prayers, during which players give thanks or ask God to keep them and their opponents free from injury, as a “ritual” or “tradition.”

So, because it’s tradition, that makes it OK? The religious beliefs of individual students are irrelevant when it comes to a majority religious group using the power of the state to promote their own beliefs?

Borden resigned the same day Pachman told him players could engage in student-led, student-initiated prayer, but that it was unconstitutional for district employees to participate.

This is crucial: some will probably try to depict this as a debate over whether students and players have a right to pray, but it’s not. Borden knows this as well. The only debate is over whether Borden can abuse the power of his position as an employee of the state to promote his beliefs by participating in and initiating prayers.

Borden said he believes laws excluding him from pregame prayer violate his First Amendment rights.

Borden doesn’t understand constitutional law. If he did, he’d realize that when acting as a state employee, some of his individual rights are curtailed because he is no longer acting as an individual — he is acting as a representative of the state. Therefore, he cannot do things which the government is not permitted to do.

Borden has a right, for example, to walk along the street handing out religious pamphlets — but he doesn’t have a right to do this in the school halls or players’ locker room. Borden has a right to go door-to-door in his neighborhood pressuring people to join his church, but he doesn’t have a right to pressure players to join his church.

Borden has a First Amendment right to pray, but not to encourage or endorse prayers among other people’s children in public schools. Borden, though, says that it would “compromise his principles” not to promote his religious beliefs by initiating prayer. That, I think, makes him unfit to be a mentor and coach in the public schools.

Magistro said a staff member, several students and parents told her on Sept. 29 or 30 that Borden was initiating and participating in team prayer.

I include this because I’ve received email from someone claiming that no students complained — that the only complaints came from parents who had no children in the school. This is the second news report to attest that students were involved in the complaints, so I want to make sure that this rumor is quashed.

World Net Daily, a very unlikely source, has an interesting letter about why pre-game prayers are a bad idea. The letter comes from an evangelical Christian who was suddenly confronted with the very uncomfortable situation of having to stand through a pre-game Buddhist prayer. Horrors!

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. ...

Needless to say that was our first and last football game. Although many of the students we worked with continued to invite us to the games, we were forced to decline. We knew that if we were to attend again we would be forced to abstain from the pre-game activity. And not wanting to offend our Asiatic neighbors and colleagues, we simply refrained from attending.

The point is this. I am a professional, educated and responsible man who is strong in his faith and is quite comfortable debating the social and political issues of the day. Yet when placed in a setting where the majority culture proved hostile to my faith and beliefs, I became paralyzed with indecision and could not act decisively to defend and proclaim my own beliefs. I felt instantly ostracized and viewed myself as a foreigner in my own land.

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.

I would say in love to my Christian brothers and sisters, before you yearn for the imposition of prayer and similar rituals in your public schools, you might consider attending a football game at Wahiawa High School. Because unless you’re ready to endure the unwilling exposure of yourself and your children to those beliefs and practices that your own faith forswears, you have no right to insist that others sit in silence and complicity while you do the same to them. I, for one, slept better at night knowing that because Judeo-Christian prayers were not being offered at my children’s schools, I didn’t have to worry about them being confronted with Buddhist, Shinto, Wiccan, Satanic or any other prayer ritual I might find offensive.

Some might question whether the story is true, but even if not it makes an interesting point: Christians who insist that schools and government employees endorse their Christian beliefs usually do so without any thought for the possibility that non-Christian beliefs might be endorsed as well. Christians are used to being a majority and accustomed to abusing their majority status by employing the coercive power of the state on their behalf.

The above writer, Gary Christenot, learned though what it’s like to be a religious minority in America and to have the coercive power of the state (not to mention the coercive power of a crowd) employed on behalf of someone else’s religion. He didn’t like it and this was a valuable lesson for both him and his family. He used to support the presence of Christianity in local government, but now he understands that non-Christians view this in an entirely different light. He understands that the government doesn’t have the authority to single out any religion or religious belief for promotion, endorsement, or encouragement.

It’s sad that so many Christians, like Marcus Borden, have yet to learn this.


Quick Poll: Should coaches at public schools lead their teams in prayers?

  1. No, it's wrong for a state employee to favor any religion or religious practice
  2. Yes, if they want - it's their right and/or it's good for the team
  3. I don't know
  4. I don't care
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