The Constitution of the United States insists upon the separation of church and state. Consequently, following guidelines established by the Supreme Court, formal prayer is prohibited in publicly supported institutions such as schools.
This is as it should be.
We are fortunate, even blessed, living in a country that guarantees freedom of religion. It's nice to see that the University of Colorado football program agrees.
"The University of Colorado," and I'm quoting here from an Associated Press story that moved on the wires this Wednesday, "after inquiry by the American Civil Liberties Union, issued a set of principles (taking) prayer, Bible readings and religious belief out of its football program. Coach Bill McCartney and Athletic Director Bill Marolt said the athletic department 'recognizes its responsibility as part of a publicly funded state institution of higher education to pursue and maintain a course of neutrality toward religion.' "
Read that again. Slowly.
Then ask yourself this: What were they doing at Colorado that put them into a position where they felt compelled, by issuing a specific, five-point policy statement, to enunciate and reaffirm their commitment to pursue and maintain a course of neutrality toward religion?
On Dec. 16, 1984 Janet Wiscombe, then a reporter for the Boulder Daily Camera, wrote a long piece about McCartney entitled "God and The Gridiron." In the course of the story, Wiscombe cited certain allegations making the rounds about McCartney's program that seemed to indicate an inappropriate emphasis on religion. These included uncontested charges that McCartney personally convened team meals as well as team and staff meetings with Bible readings and prayers, and unsubstantiated suspicions that McCartney was biased toward persons of similar evangelical religious beliefs in his hiring and recruiting practices. (The story quotes Dan Stavely, a former Colorado coach now working with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, as saying that 10 of 12 assistants on McCartney's staff are "pretty strong Christians.")
McCartney, who called himself a "born-again Catholic," denied imposing his religious views on others, claiming that "the only people who'd say I impose my beliefs on others are complainers anyway." He also denied having any religious agenda in his hiring and recruiting practices. And Marolt said yesterday that no player or coach ever has complained of being discriminated against.
But McCartney did tell Wiscombe, "religion affects every area of my life; I believe it's all for Him (Jesus Christ), or not at all." And McCartney spoke to the evangelical aspect of his religious beliefs, saying, "I am responsible to share my faith with whoever will listen. For me, personally, if everyone turned to the Almighty God the world would be better off."
Some of McCartney's players expressed concern to Wiscombe that their coach's football policy was not absolutely even-handed. It has been suggested that the way to gain McCartney's favor was to go to him for spiritual counseling. Does a player who prays more, play more? Alan Chrite, a senior on last year's team, said, "The coach doesn't force his views, but he lets us know that his way is right. I think he judges people differently if they are or aren't Christians. If you're trying to make a good impression, go in and ask him about the Bible." Loy Alexander, a senior now, said simply, "If you don't believe, you don't fit in."
The danger here, the potential for scandal, should be obvious.
Of course McCartney is constitutionally entitled to the free expression of his religious beliefs. But in a publicly funded school, like the University of Colorado, he has a pervasive constitutional responsibility to avoid the general perception, or even the slightest hint, that he might be using those beliefs to impose a standard for group behavior.
McCartney's Colorado teams have won just seven of 33 games, so there is the tendency to use his record in a prosecutorial way. But his record is a separate issue.
The issue is the potential for religious discrimination. Coaches are given such arbitrary power. They often seem to be responsible to no one. They pick their own staffs, their own players, set their own standards. They're virtually outside the law on many campuses. College athletes often view their coaches as having ultimate authority. To what lengths wouldn't an athlete on scholarship go to please his coach? To what lengths could a coach go to create a horde of muscular zealots blinded by the light?
It seems reasonable to conclude that Colorado, by taking the action it did (after prodding by the ACLU) was pleading nolo contendre to the spirit, if not each letter, of the allegations.
The jokes started immediately. The football teams have been awful for a long time, one started, now they don't even have a prayer.
But it's not a funny story.
"We believe we have a good man," Marolt said yesterday of McCartney. "There was concern by various constituencies that he not let his religious activities get involved with his coaching activities. I don't believe they were, but there was the feeling they were. So we sat down and said, 'You have to be sensitive to these things. Be careful with religion.' "
By all means.