Case Tests Boundaries of Prayer in Sports

By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 7, 2007

Baseball players sometimes cross themselves before getting into the batter's box. Basketball players might look up for divine support before a free throw. Some soccer players kiss crucifixes around their necks after scoring a goal.

But perhaps no sport is more associated with prayer than football, as teams from the NFL to high schools often pray before games in the locker room, during games, on the sidelines and after games, huddled with opponents in the middle of the field.

After leading his team in prayers for 23 years, Marcus Borden, a football coach in East Brunswick, N.J., is involved in a legal battle that is pushing the courts to decide the boundaries of acceptable religious activity for coaches and other educators in public schools.

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit heard arguments on whether Borden has the right to bow his head and kneel while his players pray around him. Borden says he is not leading his players in prayer but simply supporting them. School officials say the coach should not participate in the prayers.

The case began in 1997, when East Brunswick school officials told Borden to stop inviting clergy to lead pregame prayers. After Borden began leading the prayers himself, parents complained to the school board in 2005, and the board threatened him with disciplinary action unless he stopped.

Borden resigned, only to return to his job and launch a lawsuit against his employer. Last year, a federal district court upheld his right to bow his head and kneel on one knee as students prayed around him.

"This is not about me praying," said Borden, an award-winning coach and Spanish teacher, in a telephone interview, adding that it is about whether he may show his players the respect of participating alongside them.

However, Jo Ann Magistro, the East Brunswick schools superintendent, says that schools are obligated to protect the rights of students who might feel excluded from a religious gathering sanctioned by their coach.

"Public schools and their football teams should be places where students of all religions and students of no religion are made to feel welcome," said Magistro in a statement.

"This case is going to go a long way toward defining what the proper relationship is between religious coaches and their teams," said Barry Lynn, the executive director of the nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is arguing the school board's case pro bono.

"Here is a coach who finally after years of effort found a way to do this so the court would approve," Lynn said. "He was always trying to keep one step ahead of the Constitution."

Historians say that prayer has been fused with American sport for at least the past 100 years, but it was not until the late 1970s that football players began kneeling on one knee to pray during games.

In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas public schools may not begin football games with student-organized prayer read over the public-address system.

The East Brunswick High School team prays twice before every game, first as students lead grace at a pasta dinner in the cafeteria, then just before the game when every player kneels on one knee.

Borden, a churchgoing Catholic, refused to talk in detail about the case or his religious convictions.

"I've been through a tremendous amount of stress," he said. "I put my neck on the line here. Now, I'm just trying to keep my kids out of this."

Grant Teaff, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, estimates that about half of high school football coaches nationally pray with their teams or lead their teams in prayer. "It's very much like warriors going into battle, a platoon going into battle," he said.

He said the association has no guidelines for its members on prayer. "That's individual," he said. "It'd be like telling somebody, do you smile when you give an order, or do you frown."

"Not allowing it doesn't mean you're anti-religious or anti-faith; it means you're trying to be respectful of everyone," said Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. "Sometimes being respectful to everybody means that you have to refrain from things you would prefer to do as a team because you don't want to exclude or offend anyone."

"You have to understand what the team prayer is," said Brenda Fischer, the mother of Doug Fischer, 17, the quarterback for East Brunswick. "When you call it prayer, it doesn't have to necessarily have a religious connotation. You are wanting and hoping for safety."

Jeremy Bloom, who graduated last spring but used to play offensive guard for the team, said, "I was never really opposed to it. I'm Jewish. But I was never offended or anything."

Meanwhile, other New Jersey coaches say they continue to pray.

"Of course I pray with my team," said Warren Wolf, a coach at Brick Township High School.

"Football is a violent game, a game of contact, of excitement," Wolf said. "When you pray, you pray that nobody gets hurt on either team. You pray that God looks after all the boys playing in the game. If that's wrong, I don't understand why."

Staff researcher Rena Kirsch contributed to this report.

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