Strong opinions make for interesting cases….

I’ve known a lot of football coaches in my time.  As a general rule, I like these guys. They are hard working, fun loving, competitive, dedicated and often are very positive influences for students.  They also, seems to me, frequently hold strong opinions.  Have you noticed?  The word “stubborn” comes to mind, although I expect the coaches would prefer “firm.”

So when you get a coach at odds with his school district over an issue that stirs the blood, you have the makings of a very interesting court case.  Such is the case of Borden v. School District of the Township of East Brunswick.

 The case is about school prayer and the proper role for school officials when the students wish to pray.  The football team had a custom of reciting a prayer at their pre-game meal, and then again, on one knee in the locker room right before kickoff.  When a parent complained about this practice, the superintendent got the school lawyer involved, who laid out some guidelines, largely based on a decision from our 5th Circuit, Doe v. Duncanville ISD, 70 F.3d 402 (5th Cir. 1995).  The coach was instructed not to lead, initiate, mandate or even participate in student prayer.

Rather than comply with these restrictions, the coach quit. This was in October—right in the middle of football season.  Less than two weeks later, the coach rescinded his resignation, came back to work and promised to abide by the school’s guidelines.  I’m guessing there was a lot of hoo hah in the community between the resignation and the rescission.

Just six weeks later, (perhaps right after the final game?) the coach filed suit against the district, claiming that it had infringed on his constitutional rights.  In the suit, the coach was very specific.  He understood that he could not lead, initiate or mandate prayer. He understood that he’d been ordered not to “participate.” But all he wanted to do was to show respect for his players and their prayers by 1) bowing his head during grace; and 2) taking a knee with them in the locker room.

This generated a 24-page opinion from the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. All three judges ruled for the school district on this one, holding that the restrictions on the coach were not only constitutional—they were mandated if the school was to avoid violating the Establishment Clause.

Cases like this drive a lot of people crazy.  I’m guessing that the majority of people, and almost all football coaches, would agree with the coach that his silent gestures only signaled respect—not endorsement of religion.  The judges saw it otherwise, although you can tell from their opinions (all three had something to say) that it was a close call, and at least one of them did not much like the outcome.

These arguments continue.  Many of you probably read about the Christmas-oriented Charlie Brown poster that landed Killeen ISD in court right before Christmas.  As long as we have freedom of religion along with a prohibition of government endorsing religion we are going to have some tension around these issues.

The Borden case was decided by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals on April 15, 2008. We found it at 523 F.3d 153.


 File this one under: RELIGION

Tomorrow: an important case about the Public Information Act