Dear Sun editors: Do you favor a state-endorsed faith or not?

Anyone who has been paying attention to American public life in recent decades knows that lots of people are getting very uncomfortable with that whole First Amendment thing.

Many people are especially uncomfortable with free, even offensive speech about religion in any setting connected with government, public life, tax dollars, etc. Some even act as if religious speech is uniquely dangerous, in comparison with speech about other topics.

This is a serious issue and one that journalists cannot avoid covering, in these times.

The key church-state principle is that the government is not supposed to favor a particular religion. Thus, state officials are supposed to avoid getting involved in decisions — “entangled” is the big word — about which religions and doctrines are acceptable and which ones are not. They are supposed to err on the side of free exercise, but without allowing officials to openly favor one set of religious doctrines over another.

But what happens when some state officials consistently use their free speech rights in ways that offend the religious views of others (in effect establishing a favored, state-endorsed religion)? That’s when people of good will need to evoke “equal access” principles.

Now, I realize that equal access principles — another product of the amazing left-right church-state coalition in the Clinton era — are primarily used in disputes linked to schools and the use of other public lands and facilities. But every now and then you see disputes of this kind show up in other settings. Take, for example, the drama that The Baltimore Sun is currently attempting to cover in nearby Carroll County. Here is the top of the report:

A divided Carroll County board of commissioners voted Tuesday to no longer invoke Jesus Christ in prayers before government sessions, a measure one commissioner said “binds me to an act of disobedience against my Christian faith.”

The measure passed by a 3-2 vote amid legal pressure for the board to stop sectarian references in invocations. A federal judge in Baltimore last month issued an injunction against the practice, which is being challenged in court by some county residents who say the prayers disregard their beliefs. The commissioners resolved Tuesday that prayers may still reference “God,” “Lord God,” “Creator” and “Lord of Lords,” among other monotheistic names. But they must be non-sectarian and led by board president David Roush, who voted in favor of the change.

Richard Rothschild, one of two commissioners who opposed the resolution, said it would force him “to refuse to acknowledge the Son of God,” a statement that drew shouts of “Amen” from the handful of residents on hand.

“I humbly and respectfully declare that I cannot and will not sign a document that forward binds me to enact disobedience against my Christian faith,” Rothschild added.

So what is the problem here, from the point of view of the board’s majority?

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Half-naked dancers and public prayers in Oklahoma City

“Gonna wear my Thunderwear in Times Square.”

My friend Randy Roper, the preaching minister for my home congregation in Oklahoma, came up with that winning slogan in a 2009 contest sponsored by the Oklahoma City Thunder. As a result, Roper earned a free trip to New York for the NBA Draft Lottery. (That was, of course, before the Thunder emerged as one of the league’s top teams.)

At least once a season since then, the Thunder have asked Roper to lead the public prayer that precedes each home game.

I thought of my friend when I read a New York Times sports feature this week headlined “Praying for the Home Team in Oklahoma City.” The top of the 2,000-word story by NBA writer Andrew Keh:

OKLAHOMA CITY — Before the plumes of smoke and the shimmering pyrotechnics and the two dozen or so dancers gyrating in microscopic shorts and the hip-hop and the hairy mascot on stilts and the sponsorships — “Tonight’s free throws are brought to you by Hooters!” – there is prayer.

Chesapeake Energy Arena, home to the N.B.A.’s Oklahoma City Thunder, so fully incorporates the complete assortment of flashy sports entertainment tropes that the building has been called Loud City.

But amid the cacophony here, there is one significant difference: preceding each game is a stadiumwide prayer of invocation that on most nights briefly turns a raucous sports event into something resembling a megachurch gathering.

“We feel people’s faith is important to them,” said Dan Mahoney, the Thunder’s vice president for corporate communications and community relations, who noted that the prayers are nondenominational and that those offering them have ranged from Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy to Jewish rabbis to Native American spiritual leaders. “Gathering to support our team, we feel it’s appropriate to build in a time of reflection.”

Actually, I think Keh’s lede nails it.

I’m in the minority in Oklahoma City in that I have not become a devoted Thunder fan. My allegiance remains with baseball and my beloved Texas Rangers, three hours south of the Sooner State’s capital city. But I attend a Thunder game or two a year — usually when I can find a cheap seat up high.

And I can attest to the irony that the Times writer captures: a spiritual leader asking for God’s blessings followed by half-naked dancers gyrating all over the big screen, as this father does his best not to blush with his teenage son and daughter standing on each side of him.

But back to the journalism: Keh does an excellent job of explaining the history behind Oklahoma City’s prayer. In addition, he puts the tradition into the larger context of both the community and the NBA and sports world:

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Grossman’s blog is back: Faith & Reason 2.0 at RNS

One of the first signs that the religion beat was in trouble at USA Today was the decision to shutter veteran scribe Cathy Grossman’s “Faith & Reason” weblog.

Using a question-and-answer format — Grossman asked a news-related questions and readers would chime in — it allowed her to put quite a bit of interesting material into play for people who wanted more than a few religion headlines in the regular news pages. Day after day, Grossman used the blog to point readers toward interesting links and information sources.

Then it vanished.

Then Grossman left USA Today, one of many veterans on the beat who have been on the move in the past year or two.

Now the blog is back, as part of her duties at Religion News Service. I saw a link on Twitter, commented on one of her early posts, and Grossman dropped me a line or two, adding this background.

When I accepted the USA TODAY buyout offer in May, RNS folks and I began discussing the right role for me at Religion News Service. High on all our lists was to revive Faith & Reason — my news-based blog designed to build a community of thoughtful, civil (mostly) readers.

I joined RNS in mid-September and took six weeks to get my footing as senior national correspondent. Covering news is my first love. But if you know me, you know I love questions — particularly those with more than one answer. The timing was right to reboot.

I hope you, the GR staff, and, of course, your readers, will subscribe, comment, react, club me now and then (what¹s life without a smart critique from peers?!)

For more info, check out the post that announced the Faith & Reason 2.0 project.

The first question?

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Football and prayer story: touchdown or incomplete pass?

A Washington Post sports story caught my attention with this intriguing headline:

Faith and football collide on area public high school fields

The 1,800-word story, published this week, starts with a revealing anecdote:

Suitland football Coach Ed Shields called his team to the middle of the field after a mid-September practice and told the players the three-hour session was a waste. They would have to be better tomorrow, he screamed. Then he told them to pray, before storming off the field.

Every player took a knee, helmets off, sweat dripping, and each put a hand on another’s shoulder. The boys continued to bicker about football and how angry their coach was, and that’s when senior Steven Rivers came to the front.

“Stop talking!” Rivers shouted. A few players didn’t. Rivers looked at them. “You’re on this team, right?”

Eventually it was silent, and the players bowed their heads and recited the Lord’s Prayer. Rivers, who grew up in nearby Greenbelt, lowered his head, too.

As a Muslim, he’s not supposed to be saying a Christian prayer. But he’s a team leader and, as he sees it, if you play for Suitland, you kneel and pray before and after every practice, before and after every game.

“I’m not even supposed to be saying the prayer. But I do it for my team, because I’m a captain,” said Rivers, 17. “I say my own prayer.”

Shields said the prayer is not mandatory, but reciting it is rooted in the football culture at this public school in the heart of Prince George’s County.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of this story.

On the one hand, I like that the Post quotes real people — players, coaches, school officials, the Christian mother of the Muslim player (whose father is Muslim). It would be easy for a story such as this to get bogged down in attorneys and legalese. And it is a high school sports story, after all.

On the other hand, the story feels rather shallow to me — seeming to string together a bunch of “high school sports and religion” tidbits without really connecting the dots.

This is the nut graf:

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