This article was provided by Athletic Management
Is it okay for coaches to pray with their team? Can you question an athlete about his or her religious beliefs? What if pregame rituals have a religious component? Today’s athletic director must be well-versed on the fine line separating church and state.
By Greg Scholand
Greg Scholand is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management. He can be reached at: [email protected].
If anyone in East Brunswick, N.J., wondered whether a coach praying with his team could be a hot-button issue, they don’t wonder anymore. In October, East Brunswick High School Head Football Coach Marcus Borden made headlines by resigning his coaching position after being told he could no longer lead his team in pre-game prayers. Two weeks later, he returned to his coaching job and immediately sued the school district over his right to pray with the team. Since then, the school has drawn national attention from media outlets and political activists of all stripes. And East Brunswick has become the latest battleground in the fight over religion’s place in the educational arena.
Borden, of course, is not alone in his desire to pray with his players. Grant Teaff, Executive Director of the American Football Coaches Association, estimates that more than half of high school football coaches nationwide engage in some type of prayer with their teams. And college coaches in many different sports often openly profess their religious beliefs to their student-athletes.
The debate over the separation of church and state in America is as old as the country itself. And chances are, you’d prefer to keep your athletic program out of it. But in recent years, more and more programs are dealing with disputes on the topic. A source of team unity or turmoil, a legal liability, a moral dilemma, a public-relations tinderbox: religion in an athletic department can be all these things and more.
PART OF THE FABRIC
“There is a high degree of spirituality in sports, there’s no doubt,” says Todd Turner, Athletic Director at the University of Washington. “It’s an emotional enterprise. Those involved–coaches, athletes, and administrators–are often very introspective and focused, and they gravitate toward religion in the midst of their very competitive environment. And spirituality is such a personal issue, it can be difficult to regulate.”
“I think a real attraction is that it allows coaches and athletes to forge deeper relationships,” says Ian McCaw, Athletic Director at Baylor University, an institution affiliated with the Baptist church. “A student-athlete’s life is not just about playing their sport and going to class. When teams discuss spiritual and religious issues, student-athletes can see the big picture and know that the outcome of today’s game is only temporary–that there are more important things in their lives, including their relationship with God. A lot of coaches, particularly those who are religious themselves, want to encourage that.”
Team religiosity is often linked with more temporal benefits as well. Important values in team sports, such as self-discipline, sacrifice, and the ability to cope with adversity, can be easy for coaches and athletes to think about in religious terms. As one high school football coach in Clermont, Fla., explained to the Orlando Sentinel, “When you play for a higher power, you seem to play a little harder, run a little faster, and do things you normally wouldn’t do.”
In addition, helping athletes develop as people has always been part of the coach’s job description, and many see fostering spirituality as a step toward that goal. Clemson University Head Football Coach Tommy Bowden told the Anderson (S.C.) Independent Mail last year that the spiritual growth of his players is as important as their physical development. “We try to give those guys resources available in the weightroom, tutors, and academic help, and if they want to grow spiritually, we try to give them resources,” he said. “I think they need to have an opportunity to grow spiritually.”
Tradition also plays a large part. Borden’s defenders, for instance, point out that East Brunswick football coaches had been praying with players long before Borden took over the program more than 20 years ago. In Alabama, while defending his school’s broadcast of prayers over the loudspeaker before football games, Etowah High School Principal John Serafini told the Birmingham News, “Religion and football go hand-in-hand in this state. A prayer before a football game is part of Southern sports.”
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
If team prayers help build unity and character, and can even lead to a better effort on the field, why not do it? For one thing, the separation of church and state is part of the United States constitution. Those who oppose prayer in school settings believe that it violates the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In practice, this means public institutions may not favor one religion over another, or promote religion in any way.
A main reason our laws do not allow religion at public institutions is to protect minority rights. When students who are not part of the majority religion are subject to discrimination, they have the right to sue their school. But, more often, student-athletes who feel alienated from a team because they have different religious beliefs simply leave the team or are dissuaded from trying out in the first place. They understand that they are not welcome.
In October, two weeks after being released from New Mexico State University’s football program, former NMSU leading rusher Muammar Ali filed a letter of complaint with the university alleging that he was the victim of religious discrimination. Ali, who is Muslim, claimed that Head Coach Hal Mumme regularly had players recite the Lord’s Prayer after practices and games, and when Ali and the team’s two other Muslim players prayed differently, Mumme asked them what they were doing. Afterward, Ali said that Mumme repeatedly questioned him about Islam’s ties to terrorism and Al-Qaeda, and that he was eventually barred from traveling with the team before finally being released.
A law firm hired by the university to investigate the claims ultimately concluded that the football program did not engage in religious discrimination. But the incident was a sizeable black eye for NMSU, and it brought to the forefront one of the serious consequences of mixing religion and athletics at a public institution: the potential for some athletes to be ostracized.
“People who bring lawsuits or speak up against prayer in a public school setting are typically concerned about an ongoing activity that reflects certain religious beliefs–usually those of the majority–which result in other people being made to feel like outsiders,” explains Alan Brownstein, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of California-Davis and an expert in church-state separation issues. “An athlete shouldn’t be made to feel like a visitor in his or her own locker room simply because he or she holds different religious beliefs than most of the other players.”
In another instance, which was the subject of a federal court case in 1995 (Doe v. Duncanville Independent School District), a Texas high school basketball player who chose not to participate in team prayers was jeered by spectators at games, harassed by fellow students at her school, and even called a “little atheist” by one of her teachers. More recently, at East Brunswick High School, the North/South Brunswick Sentinel reported that the students who raised concerns about Borden’s prayers were “taunted and bullied by some of Borden’s staunchest supporters.” According to the paper, this occurred despite a meeting between the district superintendent and more than 300 people, including student-athletes and their parents, conducted to remind everyone that such actions wouldn’t be tolerated.
Clearly, people of minority faiths or no faith at all can be subject to overt mistreatment when religion takes a prominent place in an athletic program. And if they speak up about it, things can get even worse. Brownstein notes that cases involving prayer in public schools are sometimes brought by anonymous plaintiffs, (hence the frequent appearance of Doe in the case names) for fear of reprisal or public pressure to back down.
Beyond the threat of overt acts, subtle pressure to conform can also plague minority-faith athletes. “In a group dynamic, students are probably not going to want to opt out of something if everybody else is involved, even if they aren’t comfortable with it,” says Turner. “Just because no one is complaining, that doesn’t necessarily mean everything is alright.
“Coaches need to recognize their role as teachers and leaders of young people, and realize that they have a lot of influence over them,” Turner continues. “That carries with it the responsibility to have a non-threatening environment on their team, one where everyone feels welcome.”
FINE LEGAL LINES
For athletic directors trying to balance a majority-religion culture with the law, court decisions provide some direction. A landmark 1962 U.S. Supreme Court case, Engel v. Vitale, established an important guiding principle of church-state separation for public schools by declaring that teachers and school officials may not lead students in prayer, even if participation is voluntary. The following year, Abington Township School Distict v. Schempp declared organized Bible reading in public schools to be unconstitutional. And in 1971, Lemon v. Kurtzman established the “Lemon Test,” which mandates that all public school-sponsored activities have a secular purpose, neither advance nor inhibit religion, and not result in excessive entanglement between religion and government.
These decisions help to explain how the Establishment Clause–the part of the constitution’s First Amendment that affirms the separation of church and state–applies to public schools. They don’t, however, directly involve athletics. In 2000, the Supreme Court heard a case involving a Texas high school’s football pre-game prayers broadcast over the public address system at its stadium (Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe), and in its ruling offered the most thorough guidance to date on where the legal lines are drawn around prayer and school sports.
The controversy began when some students and parents complained about prayer-related school district practices that they felt violated the Establishment Clause. One such practice involved a student chaplain delivering an “overtly Christian” prayer over the loudspeaker before each home football game. Before the case reached the Supreme Court, the district modified its policy, instituting an annual student vote to decide whether a prayer would be performed, and if so, electing someone to deliver it. It also replaced the word “prayer” with “invocation” in its policy. The district argued that because of these changes, the pre-game ritual was not a school-initiated religious endorsement, but rather an expression of free speech by the students.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to determine whether the school was violating the Establishment Clause at football games. Its ruling addressed a key question: Did the pre-game invocation, even if approved by students and delivered by someone elected by the student body, constitute religious endorsement on the part of the school?
Understanding the concept of endorsement is critical to understanding the debate over prayer in public institutions. If students independently choose to initiate a prayer–in the locker room, before a team meal, or in the stands during a game–they are protected by the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, which says government may not prohibit the free exercise of religion. If, however, the school is seen as endorsing that prayer, it violates the Establishment Clause.
“It can be helpful to think about this like poles on a continuum,” explains Brownstein. “At one end, you have school-directed prayer, and that’s clearly beyond what the constitution allows. A school or a coach cannot say ‘Let us pray’ and provide the words of the prayer. On the other end, what clearly is permissible is an individual student expressing a prayer or other religious sentiments of his or her own in the locker room before a game. That is a protected activity.”
The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the pre-game prayer over the loudspeaker was a violation of the Establishment Clause–that it was too close to the ‘Let us pray’ side of the continuum. In deciding that the practice constituted endorsement, the court rejected the idea that student involvement through voting absolved the district from its responsibility to not “coerce anyone to support or participate in a religious exercise.” As the majority opinion concluded: “These invocations are authorized by a government policy and take place on government property at government-sponsored school related events … the realities of the situation plainly reveal that [the district’s] policy involves both perceived and actual endorsement of religion.”
WHERE DOES THE COACH FIT IN?
The meaning of endorsement is also at the center of the Marcus Borden case. Borden, a 23-year coaching veteran, filed suit in November over a school policy that bars him from participating in his team’s voluntary student-led prayers before gameday meals and in the locker room prior to games. The district maintains that any participation on Borden’s part constitutes school endorsement, since he is a school employee. Borden’s lawyer, though, feels the school district is being too strict in its interpretation of the law.
“It’s true that if the government is seen as giving its imprimatur or endorsement to a prayer, or if the prayer is coerced, then there’s a problem,” says Ron Riccio, the former Dean of Seton Hall University Law School, who is representing Borden through Seton Hall’s Center for Social Justice. “But [Coach Borden] is not saying, ‘I want to practice my religion.’ His argument is, ‘My athletes want to pray and I’m the coach of the team, so I want to be there with them.’ There’s a gray area concerning what school employees can and cannot do while the students are praying. The case law says they can’t participate, but it doesn’t say exactly what that means.”
In Riccio’s view, Borden bowing his head in the cafeteria and taking a knee in the locker room isn’t about endorsing religion. It’s about respecting what the team has chosen to do, and also about honoring tradition. “In my opinion, football team prayer is an entirely unique context,” Riccio explains. “We’re talking about football tradition and culture–what it means to be on a football team and what it means to be a coach. It’s also about the example he’s setting and the values he’s trying to impart to his players.
“The prayers are a team activity, like going to camp or huddling before kickoff,” he continues. “If a reasonable observer wouldn’t see what he’s doing as promoting religion, why should he be excluded from this team activity?”
Until the case is resolved, Borden will follow district policy by standing quietly and not moving while his team offers its pre-game prayers. Riccio says he hopes the court decision will clear up some questions surrounding coaches and team prayer. “Our ultimate question is, where does the coach fit in?” he says. “Are coaches different from teachers? What message is being sent when the coach bows his head or bends his knee? Does that mean he’s praying? Does that mean the government is endorsing religion? Or does that mean he’s being a good football coach?”
TALKING ABOUT IT
For the athletic director concerned about a coach injecting religion into his or her team, broaching the subject can be difficult. Since it’s such a personal matter, there’s no single right approach. But administrators who have experience working with religious coaches offer a few suggestions for framing the discussion in a constructive way.
First, it’s important to communicate why the rights of all athletes must be respected and explain why certain practices can be problematic, even if no one has complained. A coach who has prayed with his team for many years might assume that everyone is fine with the practice, though in reality, the pressure to conform may keep athletes who are made uncomfortable from coming forward. It’s also essential for coaches to make it clear to athletes that any religious activities the team engages in are strictly voluntary, and that nonparticipation will not affect how an individual is treated by coaches or the rest of the team.
When Brian Trotter, a high school athletic director in Pennsylvania, heard from the parent of a tennis player at his school that her coach was talking about religion with the team, he called the coach in to discuss which “hat” he was wearing when he was with his athletes. “I knew that his job outside of school was working with a Christian ministry group that targeted young people, so I just told him he had to realize that when he was serving as our tennis coach, his responsibilities were different,” Trotter says. “I explained it like this: ‘It’s not that I’m opposed to what you’re saying, but this isn’t the venue for you to do that.'”
Trotter says he was careful not to criticize or challenge the coach’s personal beliefs, and that was a key to making the coach receptive to his message. “Most people who speak up about their religious beliefs take them very seriously, and I didn’t want him to feel that I was in any way passing judgment on his faith,” Trotter explains. “The conversation wasn’t confrontational at all, and that made a sensitive subject a lot easier to talk about. He understood where I was coming from.”
If an athlete ever does have a complaint, it’s equally important that there are channels available for him or her to come forward. At Clemson University, for example, the football program is led by the openly religious Bowden, but Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips says if players were ever to have concerns about discrimination or were uncomfortable with something happening in the program, they would know how to make themselves heard.
“We have an environment here where people are open-minded, and if somebody doesn’t feel good about something, there are go-to people on our staff,” Phillips says. “The assistant coaches have very good relationships with our players, and we have a sports psychologist, as well as someone who has oversight of student-athlete welfare. The kids can visit any of those people if they want to talk to someone.”
In addition, the right environment throughout the athletic department can go a long way toward opening lines of communication on such a sensitive subject. “I believe if someone had a problem they wanted to discuss, they wouldn’t hesitate to come through my door and even confront me about it,” Phillips continues. “We really have an environment where kids are not threatened by this issue.”
By observing a coach’s interaction with his or her team, you can decide for yourself whether the atmosphere is one where all athletes feel welcome. Washington’s Head Men’s Basketball Coach, Lorenzo Romar, is also very publicly religious, but Turner says the coach is careful not to foist his personal beliefs on his athletes. “I’m around the basketball team a lot,” Turner says, “and I have not seen or sensed anything in the way he runs his program that suggests he is crossing the line.”
Turner says he frequently discusses the athletic department’s core values with his coaches, and that helps to create constant awareness of the type of environment they should be promoting. “Demonstrating respect for all people and providing exemplary leadership are ideals that are right in our mission statement,” he says. “We talk about our role and our mission regularly, so our staff is well aware that we expect them to create an open and welcoming environment.”
Ultimately, Turner believes the best way to advise coaches to reconcile their personal spirituality with their professional responsibility is to encourage them to use actions, not words. “The best examples that I’ve seen of striking a balance between religion and coaching are the people who speak their faith through the way they live rather than what they say,” Turner says. “Coaches who find that balance don’t have to speak about their commitments and faith. They live them, and it’s clearly evident in the way they treat people and in every decision they make.”
Sidebar: WHY SEPARATE?
In a country as religious as the United States, it may seem strange that our founding document expressly says that church and state should be separate. Why was this a priority for the founding fathers?
In their book The Godless Constitution, Cornell University professors Isaac Kramnick and R. Lawrence Moore argue that it was the founders’ reverence for religion that convinced them it should always be a private matter, not a government issue. “Political wisdom changes overnight as Americans change their president every four years and their legislature every two years,” they write. “If religion were to throw itself into this fray, where could it take firm hold in the ebb and flow of human opinions? Where would be that respect which belongs to it, amid the struggles of faction?”
In other words, early Americans believed that matters of religion were too important to be entrusted to the political realm. They felt the only way to protect religious freedom for all was to remove religion entirely from the uncertain and corruptible world of government.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, was one of his generation’s most eloquent defenders of church-state separation. In 1802, he summed up the importance of a secular constitution with these words: “Believing … that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”
Sidebar: A MOMENT
The major problem with collective team prayer is that it may include religious sentiments not shared by all the athletes. Plus, if a coach at a public institution is seen as leading or endorsing the prayer, it violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
One simple solution that allows people of all faiths or no faith to feel included in a pre-game prayer is to observe a moment of silence. The entire team, coach included, can share in the same ritual, while each individual uses the time in a way that he or she finds meaningful.
“Most legal scholars would agree that a moment of silence is permissible if it’s handled correctly,” says Alan Brownstein, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of California-Davis. “A coach could call for a few minutes of silence and meditation, which could include prayer, where everyone in the locker room spends the time either praying or thinking about whatever they feel is appropriate before the game. In that case, the coach isn’t supplying any content to the activity.”
Todd Turner, Athletic Director at the University of Washington, says a moment of silence can offer the same benefits as a collective team prayer. “It can definitely be a unifying moment for a team,” he says. “When teammates join hands and spend a moment in silence together, that act of joining hands is probably as important as anything that might be said. In that moment of quietness, everyone is focused on the team and being together.”