By Bruce Deckert
Special to Page 2

When a high-school football story from East Brunswick, N.J., becomes a front-page headline on ESPN.com, the hook clearly goes beyond football.

In this case, the story is tied to the tension that can arise when football, faith and a valued American principle share the same locker room.

Here's what happened (per the Associated Press): Coach Marcus Borden resigned after 20-plus years at the helm of East Brunswick High football because school officials told him he could no longer lead the team in prayer before games and at team meals. Some parents reportedly had complained about Borden's prayers, which school officials say breached the constitutional separation of church and state in a public school.

In the context of the church-state issue, an East Brunswick school spokesperson noted a lesser-known fact: Public-school students have the right, by law, to pray on school property -- but students must organize the prayer.

"A representative of the school district cannot constitutionally initiate prayer, encourage it or lead it," the spokesperson said.

That's the story from the AP. The backstory is as fascinating and as multifaceted as the combined playbooks of offense gurus Charlie Weis and Mike Martz.

Let's start with the religious references that are intertwined with football lore and history: The Hail Mary pass. Touchdown Jesus in South Bend. The Immaculate Reception. Tom Landry and his distinguished belief. Football and faith are virtually inseparable in this regard.

Next, let's proceed to a short history of the U.S. separation of church and state. A key reason for this 18th-century constitutional safeguard was the vivid lesson of European history ... especially the tragic consequences of consolidating the power of the state and religious belief (such as the Inquisition).

Cowboys & Eagles
AP
Players coming together in prayer is a common sight at NFL games.

Further back, in the Fourth Century, Roman emperor Constantine permitted the practice of the Christian faith -- previously, Christians had been persecuted by Rome, so Constantine essentially gave each religion a level playing field (similar, in a way, to America's church-state model). But later in the century emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the state. Some on the extreme religious right might see such a development as a blessing, but a thought-out faith realizes it isn't. By establishing a state religion, Theodosius set up a system in which friends, Romans and countrymen had political incentive to pose as believers merely to impress the emperor. This runs counter to genuine faith like a slippery kick returner eluding would-be tacklers.

So declaring any one faith as the official state religion -- whether it's Christianity or Islam or Buddhism -- is more Pandora's box than answer to prayer.

At its core, the Christian faith is not coercive. In fact, one of the bedrock premises of biblical faith is that God gives everyone a choice. Keep in mind the greatest commandment identified by Jesus, that First-Century Jewish rabbi from Nazareth (who, his followers say, defeated death in sudden-death overtime): "Love the Lord your God." And we know intuitively that choice is necessary for love to be real. Puppets and robots are not capable of love.

Yes, the God of biblical faith can be persuasive -- after all, He is God -- but He doesn't force Himself on humans.

Now, let's connect the backstory with the story.

Choice, or the lack thereof, is a key issue in the controversy surrounding the East Brunswick High football team and its recently resigned coach.

Remember, to be legal in a public-school setting, prayer has to be of the students' volition. In the NFL, players of both teams often pray together after games -- but the caveat is that it's voluntary (and, in the NFL, the church-state issue doesn't apply). Let's be clear here: Coach Borden was not forcing his players to pray, but some felt uncomfortable with his initiating the prayer. Apparently, they felt forced to participate, which was enough for the school board to invoke the church-state mandate.

Coach Borden's impact on his players' lives is evident. More than 50 members of the team and some parents reportedly have gone to Borden's home to ask him to return.

"I believe that I made the right decision," said Borden, who is a Catholic (according to the AP). "I believe I made a decision based on principle. I believe that's who I am."

Maybe coach Borden feels that kowtowing to the school board is a cop-out. But perhaps there is a deeper consideration here: Namely, the constructive influence he can continue to have on his players, despite the prayer-leading restriction, if he un-resigns.

No one can keep coach Borden from being a good mentor and role model. No one can keep him from leading by positive example. And, actually, no one can keep him from praying -- it's just that in the public-school arena his prayers must be silent, kept in his own heart and mind. But such prayer for his players' well-being can be practiced before, during and after games.

Besides, with so many players who support their coach, chances are that some of them would initiate team prayer for all who choose to take part. The coach could attend, just not participate vocally.

Legendary columnist Jerry Izenberg of the Newark (N.J.) Star Ledger has observed that as long as there are tests in school, there will always be prayer in school.

It's also safe to say that as long as one team is trailing another in the fourth quarter, there will always be prayer in football.

Do I hear an "amen"?

Bruce Deckert is an editor at ESPN.com. He can be reached at bwdeckert@hotmail.com.


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