Writing 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?