Friday, 27 February 2009


To Coach Louis Thompson, praying with his Lincoln County High School football team is as important as leading them to winning seasons — maybe more important.
"Every day when we finish practice, we take a knee, bow our heads and say the Lord's Prayer — every day. We don't miss a day," Thompson said.
"Along with the Lord's Prayer at practice, we have a silent prayer before each game where I tell them to pray for themselves and their teammates.''
But a case making its way to the U.S. Supreme Court could prevent Thompson and other coaches of public schools from praying with their teams, even if the players initiate the prayer on their own.
School district policies and practices vary widely across Tennessee. In Metro Nashville, coaches and teachers are officially barred from taking part in student-led prayers, though some said they do so.
Knox County's policy states there is to be no prayer during school-sponsored activities, only a moment of silence.
"I don't know that we have a policy, but all of our coaches have been told that it's to be student-led,'' said David King, director of athletics for the Lincoln County Department of Education.
"I go to a lot of the games throughout the county and the majority of them do have student-led prayer before the game, and some of them do after the game, too."
High court to decide soon
The Supreme Court is deciding whether it wants to review a case that banned an East Brunswick, N.J., high school football coach from kneeling or bowing his head while his team prayed.
A ruling on whether the court will review the case is expected within the next two weeks.
While a U.S. Supreme Court ruling could clarify the issue once and for all, some legal experts say the law already is clear.
"There's a pretty bright line here — school officials may not pray with students during their contract day," said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center.
"I don't think the coach has to leave the room. He can just stand silently and watch. But he can't participate."
While acknowledging a 1962 Supreme Court decision that severely restricted the role public school employees may play in organizing religious activities, supporters of team prayers say banning any participation by the coach goes too far.
"I understand that a coach cannot lead the prayer, but just to be there bowing his head? This violates a person's personal faith," said Steve Robinson, Middle Tennessee director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
" … I really believe that some of our founding fathers who drafted the constitution would turn over in their grave if they knew that we were debating this. I don't believe this was their intent whatsoever."
'You just need to be careful'
Coach Marcus Borden went to court after East Brunswick school officials ordered him to stop praying or engaging in any religious activity with his high school football team.
A U.S. District Court ruled in 2006 that Borden could silently bow his head and kneel while his team prayed, but the case was appealed and the U.S. 3rd District Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the lower court ruling.
Borden filed a petition in October asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.
"We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will grant (Borden's) petition … so that public school coaches throughout the nation will have a clear understanding as to how they may respond to player-initiated voluntary prayer," his attorney Ronald Riccio said.
Supporting the school district's side is Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a civil liberties watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.
"The main message we're trying to make to folks is that you just need to be careful about bringing any of these religions into school because the way you treat one is the way you must treat them all," said Rob Boston, senior policy analyst for the group.
"Coach Borden was leading his team in prayers that maybe many people in the community felt OK about.
"But what if he'd been saying other types of prayers from some tradition that folks were not so comfortable with? You have to be careful in opening that door."
Furthermore, Boston said, Borden's religious advocacy while coaching extended 23 years and went well beyond passively taking part in team prayers.
"Coach Borden said, 'All I really want to do is bow my head.' But from our perspective, he wants to do a good bit more," Boston said.
"He had a long history of organizing prayer, picking students to lead them, writing them and he even had a chaplain coming in and praying with students.
"He'd been involved with these religious activities for a long time and then all of a sudden he said, 'All I really want to do is take a knee and bow my head.' And the court just said, 'You cannot divorce yourself from your own history.' "
Effect could be profound
If the Supreme Court decides to hear the case, its ruling would have broad implications, offering strong precedent that would be used by attorneys in cases around the country.
The effect could be profound.
In the moments after his last game as Tennessee football coach, Phillip Fulmer knelt with his players for a post-game prayer. Depending on the high court decision, such a display by a football coach at a public university could become an issue, noted Robinson, of the Christian athletes group.
"In that last game, an ESPN commentator was trying to interview Coach Fulmer and he said, 'Wait a minute, I want to pray with my guys,' " Robinson said. "They want to take his right to do that away?"
The American Football Coaches Association, which held its annual convention in Nashville last month, also filed a petition in favor of allowing the coaches to participate, after its board voted unanimously to support Borden's case.
"Anybody that believes in freedom and believes in the opportunity to express yourself as a coach and … to engage in activities with your team when they choose to do something should be very concerned about this," said Grant Teaff, executive director of the coaches association.
Maplewood High School football Coach Ralph Thompson, who is not related to the Lincoln County coach, worries about seeming unsupportive if he doesn't acknowledge the team prayer.
"The way we've handled it in Metro is that none of the coaches can actually be the ones that lead the kids in prayer," he said. " … As coaches, we'll stand a couple of feet back from the huddle that they get in and quietly, to ourselves, we'll say the Lord's Prayer.
"The concern for me as a coach is that it may look like I don't want to have anything to do with religion if I am not allowed to bow while they pray. It makes it look like I don't condone it or I don't like it.
"It's like I'm saying, 'If that is something y'all want to do, then you go ahead. I'm not going to be a part of it and my coaching staff is not going to be a part of it.' "
Haynes, of the First Amendment Center, acknowledges that this part of the country, in particular, could have a tougher time adjusting to the reality of the law.
"In the South especially, this is seen like Mom and apple pie and the flag — it's natural to pray before games," he said. "It's painful for people to give that up."
Players' views vary
Sam Morris, a senior on the Hendersonville soccer team who described himself as atheist, said he would prefer that coaches didn't take part in the team prayers.
"I have no problem with other players praying because that is their own personal belief and I can respect that," he said. "But when I think that the government or a teacher is imposing their beliefs on me, then it makes me feel uncomfortable."
Morris' father, Tom, says he's fine with a coach taking part, as long as the prayer is clearly the idea of the players.
"I don't think coaches should be allowed to lead or organize prayers in an athletic event," he said. "If the coaches are just there to participate, I don't have any problems with that."
Waled Tayib, 17, a Muslim student who plays on the Overton High School football and soccer teams, is accustomed to being surrounded before each football game by teammates who say the Lord's Prayer.
"I just bow my head and say my own prayer inside,'' said Tayib, who is of Kurdish descent. "I think that type of prayer is OK even with the coaches there kneeling or with their heads bowed or whatever."
Many opponents of team prayers hope the high court decides not to hear Borden's case.
"Since 1962, the Supreme Court has been pretty clear that any employees at public schools cannot lead students in prayer and that includes principals, teachers and coaches," Boston said. "Now I know a lot of coaches bend that rule, but technically they're not supposed to.
"If the Supreme Court declines to hear the case, all they're saying is they consider the 1962 decision to be good law. … If they decide to hear the case, it could mean the justices are interested in taking another look at what role prayer should play in the public school system."
Any move in Tennessee to strengthen the ban on teams' or coaches' ability to pray would probably be met with hostility, said Louis Thompson, the Lincoln County coach.
"I'm going to continue to do it," he said, "and I couldn't care less what the Supreme Court says or does."