Politics Religion

Unclear on the concept

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgVacation time! While Orac is off in London recharging his circuits and contemplating the linguistic tricks of limericks and jokes or the glory of black holes, he’s rerunning some old stuff from his original Blogspot blog. This particular post first appeared on October 19, 2005. Enjoy!

Somehow I didn’t find out about this story about a football coach who resigned because the school district ordered him not to lead his team in prayer at dinners before each game until several days after it had happened. Consequently, I had been debating about whether or not to write about it, its being old news and all. Then I learned that the coach rescinded his resignation before the school board could accept it and is considering legal action. That was the excuse I needed to discuss this case. (Also, I needed a brief break from medblogging, hence the topics of the last couple of days.)

Here’s what happened:

But the controversy that led to Borden’s resignation actually started two weeks ago.

According to Patricia LaDuca, a spokeswoman for the district, Schools Superintendent Jo Ann Magistro started hearing rumblings on Sept. 29 about some concerns regarding Borden leading his team in prayer prior to every game.

“And not just from one source,” LaDuca said. “People from both sides of the issue were bringing this to Dr. Magistro’s attention. Students were even approaching staff members about it.”

Magistro acted quickly on the matter.

“As soon as she got the first inquiry about it, she immediately contacted Board of Education attorney Martin Pachman to find out what needed to be done,” LaDuca said. “She did her homework before she even contacted Marcus about it.”

It was a week before Pachman got back to Magistro, according to LaDuca, and when he did, he informed her that if indeed Borden was initiating a prayer with his players, he was doing so in direct violation of the guidelines set forth by the Supreme Court of the United States.

Magistro discussed the matter with Borden and later that same day:

Following the meeting, Borden, who could not be reached for comment by press time despite repeated attempts, told Magistro that he needed to think about the issue.

“He gave no indication that he wouldn’t show up for the dinner or the game,” LaDuca said.

But that is exactly what he did. While the Bear players and coaching staff met for their team dinner at 3:30 p.m. that afternoon in the high school cafeteria, Borden was not among them. Assistant coach Glenn Pazinko was left in charge, and with no information regarding the guidelines earlier explained to Borden, did not lead the players in saying grace, as they were accustomed to doing each week.

This led to some misinformation, according to LaDuca, with some parents becoming outraged, claiming the players were told not to pray.

“The kids were standing there waiting for someone to lead them in prayer, when the coach told them to sit down and eat,” she said. “Nobody told them they couldn’t pray. In fact, before the game started, the players did pray.”

At 5:50 p.m., East Brunswick Athletic Director Frank Noppenberger received an e-mail from Borden in which he resigned his position as head coach. In that e-mail, the coach informed the longtime AD that his resignation was effective immediately, and was apologetic that it couldn’t wait until the end of the season.

Unfortunately, Noppenberger did not know about the e-mail until after the game, leaving the players and fans in the dark regarding Borden’s decision to resign. While Pazinko went on to lead the Bears during their 21-0 loss to Sayreville, Borden’s decision not to address his players before the game left many players confused and disappointed, according to LaDuca.

The story actually made national headlines, being reported by ESPN and the Chicago Tribune, among others. Bordon was unapologetic, saying that he resigned on principle and that he had made the right decision.

Well, apparently he’s reversed himself:

East Brunswick High School football coach Marcus Borden, who stepped down on Oct. 7 hours after school officials told him he could no longer initiate or participate in team prayer, rescinded his resignation and returned to his players yesterday.

Borden, who had until Thursday — the next Board of Education meeting — to rescind his resignation, said the abrupt reversal of field should not be construed as a change in his game plan.

“I have strong beliefs and principles,” Borden said. “I don’t want anybody to think that I backed down on them.”

Borden’s lawyer, Ronald J. Riccio, rescinded the coach’s 10-day-old resignation in a letter to school board attorney Martin Pachman. A constitutional law expert and former dean of Seton Hall Law School, Riccio is representing Borden pro bono through the university’s Center For Social Justice.

“You can’t fight the fight unless you’re in the ring,” Riccio said, explaining why he advised Borden to return to the sidelines. “He is making sure that his ability to challenge the district’s policy remains alive. You can’t challenge something if it no longer injures you.”

Apparently Borden has had some second thoughts and has been persuaded that his not being allowed to lead his team in prayer somehow violates his First Amendment rights. It is not. He is perfectly free to practice his Catholic faith publicly and proselytize to his heart’s content outside of his job. He just can’t lead prayers while on the job. I can’t imagine how the legal action he is considering would go anywhere.

Before I go on, let’s get one thing straight here. From everything I can gather from the news reports. Borden sounds like a hell of a great guy. He’s a hell of a coach, and his players respect and admire him. He is the AFCA’s 2004 national Power of Influence Award winner and has received USA Today magazine’s 2003 national Caring Coach of the Year award. He also founded the Snapple Bowl, a charity all-star high school football game that has raised more than $150,000 for physically and mentally impaired children. Nonetheless, he’s wrong about this one thing. I would hope that even a highly religious person like Borden could see why it is a bad idea for an authority figure, a representative of the state like a teacher and a football coach, to lead prayers in state-sponsored events.

What I find particularly interesting about this story is where it happened. East Brunswick, like much of central Jersey, is highly diverse. In fact, East Brunswick has a very large Jewish population, so much so that it is not at all uncommon to see advertisements for houses for sale emphasize that they are within walking distance of a synagogue, so that observant Jews can walk to temple on the Sabbath. There are also very large Indian and Pakistani populations in this area, with lesser–but still significant–Chinese populations here, mainly because of nearby Rutgers University and a number of large pharmaceutical companies in the area. Indeed, it is not at all unusual to see Sikhs wearing turbans working at various establishments in the area, particularly convenience stores and gas stations.

It’s surprising that, in the bluest part of one of the bluest of the blue states, an area that is overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic in its politics, this is even an issue. You’d expect this sort of thing to be happening in the South or even parts of the Midwest, but not in central New Jersey. And, even in New Jersey, public sentiment is much more in favor of the coach’s stand than of the school’s:

According to LaDuca, the board has been inundated with e-mails from people supporting Borden, many of whom feel he should be able to pray with his team, even though it violates federal law, and would subject the district to litigation.

There have not been many messages supporting Magistro’s actions.

Worse, the students who initially expressed their concerns about Borden have been taunted and bullied by Borden’s supporters, despite an effort by the school to educate

The fact that it is happening in East Brunswick and that the vast majority of people appear to be lining up behind the coach shows how little people understand how the Constitutional prohibition against the establishment of religion protects all of us. Representatives of the state leading groups of students in prayer is a clear violation of the Establishment clause. Oddly enough, via Atheism Guide, I came across an evangelical Christian writing at the extremely conservative WorldNet Daily (usually not dubbed “Wingnut Daily” for nothing) about having to endure a pregame Buddhist prayer actually nails why state-sponsored prayer is a threat to our freedom of religion:

Coming from a fairly traditional Southern upbringing, I was not at all initially surprised when a voice came over the PA and asked everyone to rise for the invocation. I had been through this same ritual at many other high-school events and thought nothing of it, so to our feet my wife and I stood, bowed our heads, and prepared to partake of the prayer. But to our extreme dismay, the clergyman who took the microphone and began to pray was not a Protestant minister or a Catholic priest, but a Buddhist priest who proceeded to offer up prayers and intonations to god-head figures that our tradition held to be pagan.

We were frozen in shock and incredulity! What to do? To continue to stand and observe this prayer would represent a betrayal of our own faith and imply the honoring of a pagan deity that was anathema to our beliefs. To sit would be an act of extreme rudeness and disrespect in the eyes of our Japanese hosts and neighbors, who value above all other things deference and respect in their social interactions. I am sorry to say that in the confusion of the moment we chose the easier path and elected to continue to stand in silence so as not to create a scene or ill will among those who were seated nearby.

As I thought through the incident over the next few days I supposed that the duty of offering the pre-game prayer rotated through the local clergy and we just happened to arrive on the night that the responsibility fell to the Buddhist priest. However, after inquiring I learned that due to the predominance of Buddhist and Shinto adherents in this town, it was the normal practice to have a member of one these faiths offer the pre-game prayer, and Christian clergy were never included.

Although this story sounds a little dubious to me, even if not true it drives the point home. Or imagine another scenario: You are a football player. You are right on the borderline of getting to play or warming the bench. Some games you play; some games you warm the bench. Like most players, you want to get in the game, but to get in the game you have to impress your coach. Now, add this to the mix: You are a Buddhist or believe in some other non-Judeo-Christian religious belief system, like Shintoism. Or you’re an atheist. Praying to the Judeo-Christian God is highly offensive to you, for whatever reason. Now, imagine this: At the dinner before each game, your coach leads the team in a prayer. It is claimed that you are perfectly free not to participate. But are you really? How many teenagers, desperate for approval of their coach, would have the intestinal fortitude to draw attention to themselves by refusing to participate, risking the disapproval of the man who decides whether or not they get to play or not or even whether or not they are good enough to be on the team?

But don’t listen to me; listen to the same evangelical Christian above:

We often advocate the practice of Judeo-Christian rituals in America’s public schools by hiding behind the excuse that they are voluntary and any student who doesn’t wish to participate can simply remained seated and silent. Oh that this were true. But if I, as a mature adult, would be so confounded and uncomfortable when faced with the decision of observing and standing on my own religious principals or run the risk of offending the majority crowd, I can only imagine what thoughts and confusion must run through the head of the typical child or teenager, for whom peer acceptance is one of the highest ideals.

Unfortunately, the very observation that in one of the most strongly liberal and Democratic parts of the U.S., public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of someone like Coach Borden, who flouts the separation of church and state, shows that the U.S. has a long way to go in understanding why this separation is necessary to protect freedom of religion (or from religion) for all. One can only imagine how such a scenario would play out in Mississippi or Arkansas.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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