Praying for better coverage of prayer

football prayerWriting about a court’s opinion in a lawsuit should be easy. At least you may think it would be. The court’s opinion typically contains all the relevant facts, important quotes, the history of the law and how it applies in the particular case. For example, you’d expect that news reports of a opinion finding a coach’s participation in pre-football game prayers unconstitutional would include the words of the prayer, right?

At least that’s what I would be looking for as well as many other people in America who participate in some form of high school sports. Alas, such is the case of legal reporting in the mainstream media, where reporters routinely avoid getting into the depth of opinions that often have huge impacts on the way people and communities deal with religion.

For example, here are a few of the paragraphs from the coverage from The New York Times of a recent controversy involving a football coach bowing his head while a member of the football team prayed before games. This controversy took place, by the way, right next door to the NYT in New Jersey:

Marcus Borden, who has been the head football coach at East Brunswick High School since 1983, sued the district in 2005, saying its policy violated his rights to free speech and due process, as well as to academic freedom and freedom of association.

In July 2006, the United States District Court for New Jersey ruled that Borden could bow his head and bend his knee when the team captains led the players in prayer, but three judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned the lower court’s ruling Tuesday, citing Borden’s history of leading prayers in the past.

Judge D. Michael Fisher wrote in his opinion that “the conclusion we reach today is clear because he organized, participated in and led prayer activities with his team on numerous occasions for 23 years.”

“Thus,” Fisher continued, “a reasonable observer would conclude that he is continuing to endorse religion when he bows his head during the pre-meal grace and takes a knee with his team in the locker room while they pray.”

In case you were curious what one of the prayers said, here it is from the court’s opinion. As for the difficulty in acquiring and reporting this information, it was as easy as cut and paste:

“[D]ear lord, please guide us today in our quest in our game, our championship. Give us the courage and determination that we would need to come out successful. Please let us represent our families and our community well. Lastly, please guide our players and opponents so that they can come out of this game unscathed, [and] no one is hurt.”

Also included in the court’s opinion are the juicy details like the school’s policy on coaches and teachers praying and the controversy leading up to the lawsuit.

Are there word counts on the Internets that I’m unaware of prohibiting reporters from including this excellent background information in a story about prayer? Or how about at least a link to the PDF of the court’s opinion?

That kind of information, that takes less effort than writing this sentence, should be standard in stories like this. It doesn’t even take up the news organization’s bandwidth since the document is hosted on the appellate court’s servers.

Above is a photo of one of these prayer sessions taken conveniently from the court’s opinion on the matter, in case you were curious about that minor major detail.

While the NYT may deem itself above and beyond covering this issue, other than its mere 10 paragraphs, the Associated Press at least touched upon the significance of the ruling and why it is likely that the Supreme Court will take up the matter.

The story does a good job giving the background of the case, which is easily accessible in the court’s opinion, and the significance, even if it did come from the coach’s attorney:

Borden’s lawyer, Ronald Riccio, said he would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case to clarify what he says is murky law — especially given Tuesday’s decision — about student-led prayer.

“As the matter now stands, some coaches can bow their head and take a knee,” Riccio said.

As we’ve said many times before, when dealing with First Amendment legal issues, there are dozens of law professors out there that would love to spout off about the legal background of the case. It is frustrating that stories like this don’t deal with any of the legal precedents that are involved. It would be like writing about the 2004 election without mentioning who won in 2000.

Lastly, neither of the news stories bothered to mention a rather significant fact about the case: The district court agreed with the plaintiff/coach in finding that the school’s policy on prayer was unconstitutional. However, the appellate court in ruling against the coach didn’t just find that the school could implement this policy. The court found that the act itself was an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause.

In other words, public school athletic coaches within the Third District: bowing your head with your athletic team is violating the Constitution.

Reporters should note that this includes Pennsylvania, and last time I checked, there is a rather significant primary election going on in that state. Anyone want to ask candidates Obama and Clinton about how they feel about coaches bowing their heads with their athletes?

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  • Blake

    There is way too much at stake in this country to waste time fiddling with non-issues such as these.

    Is this a pandemic? Is this affecting millions of Americans? Is this going to produce more jobs? Is this going to effect healthcare? Is this a threat to our national security? No.

    These are issues designed to distract from what really matters. Its a formal prayer before a game.

    Do you really think God Almight, the Creator Himself cares whether or not some football team wins or not? If so, in the words of my pastor… you need to “get right with God”.

  • Jerry

    I agree with Blake. Matthew 23:24 comes to mind here. No matter how detailed the ruling, there will always be a murky zone. Either you wind up with 5,000 volumes of rules to govern every situation along with lawyers present at all times to interpret those rules or people have to decide to practice tolerance, the subject of a very recent topic here. Sad to say, to many tolerance has become a vice rather than a virtue.

  • Dave

    I disagree with Blake and Jerry on this one. There in an important line to be drawn between voluntary and socially coerced prayer. And being an important issue, it needs to be covered competently.

  • Judy Harrow

    Y’know, I was raised on one religion and now practice an entirely different one. But neither of them involves kneeling. Associating that posture with prayer is not a universal given. So that picture tells me that it was not just an establishment of religion, but an imposition of one particular religion. Any of my male co=religionists would have the choice of engaging in an alien action, or standing out as a weirdo and non-conformist on that team.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Blake’s right. In fact, let’s get rid of the sports section altogether. Why cover non-issues like sports when there are much more important things to cover? Are sports going to produce more jobs? Affect healthcare? Are sports a threat to our national security? (Probably not, although the way the Indians are playing is a threat to the sanity of everyone in NE Ohio.)

    I wonder how the Times would have covered the story if the appellate court had upheld the lower court?

    This case gives me one more reason to thank God that I coach at a Christian school. I fear, however, that in a few years we won’t be able to pray before games there, either.

  • Michael

    The two stories are practically identical, including quoting the exact same people. Was there a different, more thorough AP story then the one linked? Every losing litigant believes the Supreme Court is going to take their case, but the decision was unanimous on the constitutionality.

    I can’t imagine why Obama or Clinton (or McCain, remember him) should have a strong opinion on this issue. If anyone, I’d be the most curious about what McCain has to say.

    The fact I would have added to the story was the large number of religious groups that file briefs supporting the school district and opposing the coach. Minority religious groups are the ones threatened by coerced, Christian prayers with students. I mean, look at the anti-Semitic comments made when non-Christian students complained about the coerced prayer led by a faculty member.

  • Jason

    Yeah, but what does this have to do with the Pope’s visit?