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FIRST-PERSON: Coach quits when school bans pre-game prayer

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–A high school football coach in New Jersey had two words for school officials who told him he had to stop leading his team in a pre-game prayer.

I quit.

That’s what Marcus Borden of East Brunswick High School did in response to his school’s orders. Borden had been coaching the team for 23 years and leading a pre-game prayer the entire time.

But apparently some parents expressed their displeasure with the practice, and Superintendent Jo Ann Magistro told him the practice would have to stop.

Trish LaDuca, a spokesperson for the school district, defended the district’s action.

“Certainly students have a constitutional right to engage in prayer on school property, at a school event and even during the course of the school day,” LaDuca told the Home News Tribune of East Brunswick. “But it has to be student initiated. Truly student initiated.”

Borden didn’t think the prayers violated anyone’s rights, and he resigned in protest.

“I believe that I made the right decision,” Borden, a Catholic, said in an Associated Press story. “I believe I made a decision based on principle. I believe that’s who I am.”

The resignation leaves the district without a popular coach and the players without a role model they respected. In addition to his work on the football field, Borden founded an event called the Snapple Bowl, a charity endeavor that has raised more than $150,000 for disabled children.

As an arm of the government, public schools should be able to provide an atmosphere where no student is discriminated against or mistreated because of his or her religion. I fully agree with that. School is not church, and as a former teacher myself I never would have dreamed of opening my classes in prayer.

But if prayer is such a rights-violating practice, then why does Congress begin its sessions that way? If any public display of religion is tantamount to “establishing a religion,” then why does our money still bear the motto, “In God we trust”?

A little consistency would be nice. Either prayer in government is wrong or it’s not. If it’s wrong for a football coach to lead his team in a prayer before a game — and Borden was most likely simply asking God to protect his players — then it’s wrong for Congress to open in prayer. If it’s OK for Congress to open in prayer, then a simple prayer ritual before a football game should be OK as well.

This is also another instance of the wishes of the minority tyrannizing those in the majority. The pre-game prayer has gone on for years, so obviously it didn’t upset very many. But of course, there are always a few malcontents who have to make a federal case out of something minor. Too many people think “freedom from being uncomfortable” is constitutional, thinking they have a right to go through life without ever being offended by anything.

Even if you weren’t a big fan of the pre-game prayer, wouldn’t it have been better to remain quiet, so as not to be responsible for what has now happened? Because one or two people were “uncomfortable” with the practice, they’ve now driven off a coach who was a positive influence on the school and the community.

Was Borden right to resign? Some will suggest he should have kept coaching and stayed in a place where he could be a role model to his players.

But by standing up for his principles and his beliefs, Borden’s resignation may have a greater impact on his players than if he had stayed. He’s taught the team about football for years. Now he’s teaching them something about life.
Tim Ellsworth writes this column from his home in Jackson, Tenn. Write to him at [email protected], or visit his weblog at www.timellsworth.com for additional commentary on sports, religion, culture and politics.

    About the Author

  • Tim Ellsworth

    Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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