Written by John W. Whitehead
by John W. Whitehead
April 21, 2008
According to the New Jersey ACLU legal director, Marcus Borden has fostered a "destructive environment" for students. What did Borden, a high school football coach in East Brunswick, N.J., and a recipient of the national Caring Coach of the Year award, do to create such a "destructive" environment?
He bowed his head--silently. Sometimes he knelt down on one knee--silently. Coach Borden wasn't attempting to pray with his football players, nor was he leading them in prayer. He was showing silent respect for their longstanding pre-game tradition by bowing his head.
But the forces of political correctness have gotten so absurd that even the most obscure, non-verbal expressions are targeted for censorship if religion is even remotely involved.
Yet as a student athletic trainer who worked with Borden during his first year as a coach at East Brunswick remarked, "The tradition of student-initiated prayer goes back many, many years. I think with all that is wrong in our schools today, gun violence, bullying, promiscuity, etc., that the energy being spent on Marcus Borden bowing his head and taking a knee is a waste. Here is a man trying to support the youth in his care and be a positive role model and all these administrative yahoos can worry about is his presence in a room with his players while they pray. It is time people stopped obsessing over the positive messages a coach is trying to send and start worrying about the real problems in school today." Indeed, Borden has been recognized for his efforts to positively impact young people with the Power of Influence Award, given only to deserving high school football coaches for positively impacting their players, schools and communities.
Our schools are in a deplorable state, and our young people are surrounded by dangers on all sides--from premarital sex, school shootings and drug and alcohol abuse to low literacy standards and a lack of understanding about the difference between right and wrong. In light of this, you'd think the schools would be grateful for a teacher who serves as a positive, moral role model for young people. But when religion is involved, even heroes like Borden find themselves under fire.
Pre-game, student-led prayer has been a regular part of football for many years. In fact, East Brunswick High's practice of player-initiated, pre-game prayer has been in effect for over 25 years, with more than 2,000 former East Brunswick football players opting to voluntarily pray before taking the field on game days. The prayers are a simple, solemn request for safety and honor on the field: "Dear Lord, please guide us today in our quest in our game. Please let us represent our families and our communities well. Lastly, please guide our players and opponents so that they can come out of this game unscathed, no one is hurt."
But after some parents reportedly complained about a prayer that was offered at a pre-game pasta dinner, the practice became a target for official school censure. Quick to jump on the "thou-shalt-not-offend" bandwagon, school officials passed a policy in October 2005 prohibiting representatives of the school district from participating in student-initiated prayer.
But school officials went so far as to order Borden, who also teaches Spanish, to stand still rather than bending a knee and silently bowing his head while his players recited pre-game prayers. The penalty for disobeying was disciplinary action, including the loss of his job as a coach and tenured teacher. School officials justified their actions by insisting that while student athletes have the constitutionally protected right to pray, that privilege does not extend to coaches, who are public employees and whose participation would violate the so-called "separation of church and state."
Borden responded by offering his resignation in protest. But after thinking further about the matter, he changed his mind and rescinded his resignation so he could continue coaching. At the same time, believing that he was taking "a stand for every high school football coach in America," Borden also filed a lawsuit asking the courts to review the school's prayer policy.
Although school officials in this instance were lacking in common sense, the federal district court was not. In siding with Coach Borden, Judge Dennis Cavanaugh ruled that the school district had violated Borden's constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of association and academic freedom when they prohibited him from silently bowing his head and "taking a knee" with his players while they engaged in student-initiated, student-led, nonsectarian pre-game prayers.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently overturned Cavanaugh's decision and ruled that a football coach may not silently bow his head or "take a knee" with his team as a gesture of respect for student-led prayers prior to a game.
Borden's case is being closely watched by athletic directors across the country who were instructed to cease praying with their players. According to Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, more than 50 percent of high school football coaches nationwide have engaged in team prayer. Furthermore, if this ruling is allowed to stand, it could very well mean that high school teachers across the United States will have no free speech or academic freedom rights.
We have become a politically correct society--one that stands for uniformity, not diversity. If someone might be offended, freedom of speech is erased.
But if all freedoms hang together, then they will fall together, too. And if America continues on its present course, it will mean the end of freedom.
John W. Whitehead is an attorney and author who has written, debated and practiced widely in the area of constitutional law and human rights. Whitehead's concern for the persecuted and oppressed led him, in 1982, to establish The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties and human rights organization whose international headquarters are located in Charlottesville, Virginia. Whitehead serves as the Institute’s president and spokesperson, in addition to writing a weekly commentary that is posted on The Rutherford Institute’s website (www.rutherford.org), as well being distributed to several hundred newspapers, and hosting a national public service radio campaign. Whitehead's aggressive, pioneering approach to civil liberties issues has earned him numerous accolades, including the Hungarian Medal of Freedom.