Coach is out of line by leading prayers

Sunday, March 28, 1999

Locker-room prayer by the coach may or may not bring victory on the basketball court, but it's bound to lose in a court of law.

Welcome to the latest chapter in the perennial “school prayer” debate. This time around, the focus is on a public-school coach in central California who insists on praying with his basketball team before every game. Just days before the big championship game, the school district is threatened with legal action. The coach is told by the school superintendent to cease and desist.

Talk about bad timing. The coach says the team hasn't lost a game since he and the players started praying together. Nobody likes to tinker with a winning formula- especially with the state championship on the line.

Why should anyone really care whether or not the coach huddles with his team in prayer? With all of the big problems facing schools, isn't this much ado about nothing?

As silly as it might appear on the surface, this case actually involves fundamental principles of religious liberty. It really isn't about a three-minute prayer before the game. It's about protecting the conscience of every student and keeping the government out of the religion business.

If you have children in the public schools, you probably don't send them there to be indoctrinated for or against religion. Some of you might not mind if a coach encourages prayer to your God, but you might feel very differently if the coach prayed a prayer to some other God — or if he told the students that all prayer is meaningless.

That's why the Supreme Court has interpreted the establishment clause of the First Amendment more strictly in public schools than elsewhere. The reasoning of the Court's majority goes something like this:

Students in a public school are a captive audience of impressionable young people. Faith formation is the responsibility of parents and religious communities, not public-school teachers (including coaches). Thus school officials must remain neutral concerning religion while on the job.

But court decisions don't convince this California coach. He feels deeply that he should be able to pray with his team. Since the prayer is voluntary and led by students, and since all of the students say that they're Christians, what's the harm?

While the potential for harm may not be immediate or apparent, it is considerable in at least two important ways:

  1. Allowing this coach to pray with students signals other teachers that they also can endorse or denigrate religion in the presence of students.
  2. The player who might not want to pray-or whose religion forbids him from praying this particular prayer — may be hesitant to speak up when the coach enters the huddle and joins hands. Peer pressure makes life hard enough for kids without the added anxiety of displeasing the coach.

Is the choice between prayer with the coach or no prayer at all? Of course not. Students can pray all they want to, as long as they're ready to play when the whistle blows.

A good coach is there for each and every student-students of all faiths or none. Coaches may model the core moral values of their faith — I hope they do-but they should also model the principles of religious liberty.

Perhaps when the dust settles from this latest conflict, the coach will think about his First Amendment obligations. And maybe next season he'll tell his players something like this:

“Those of you who wish to pray before the game are free to do so. Those of you who don't, please wait quietly for a few minutes. I'm not going to participate in the prayer huddle; that's not my role as your coach. I'm here to make sure that each of you is treated with fairness and respect.”