The Golden State Warriors have thrilled fans this season, and have a real chance to beat the San Antonio Spurs and head to the Western Conference Finals. Coach Mark Jackson deserves tremendous credit for instilling toughness and confidence in his young players, and has proven a powerful, charismatic leader. Yet there is a side to Jackson that should concern Warriors fans: his apparent use of his power as coach to convert young players to his brand of religion. Jackson is a minister who also preaches the power of Christianity on the basketball court. Interviewed by TNT right after the Warriors playoff victory over the Nuggets, Jackson would only say that it was “God’s will.” When rookie star Draymond Green was asked on KNBR the next day how Jackson helped him as a coach, the first words out of his mouth were, “he showed me the path to God.” In promoting a particular brand of religion to employees, Jackson, whose condescending comments about Jason Collins got little attention last week, has crossed the line.

As much as I want the Warriors to win the NBA title and open an exciting new facility to the San Francisco waterfront, I have a problem looking the other way when the team may be violating state and federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. The federal Title VII Act prohibits “treating applicants or employees differently based on their religious beliefs or practices – or lack thereof – in any aspect of employment, including recruitment, hiring, assignments, discipline, promotion, and benefits (disparate treatment)…”

Title Vll does not prohibit the very common scene of American sports teams joining in prayer before and after games, or in the wake of major injuries. These player initiated religious events do not involve the employer-employee relationship. It is quite different when a team owner, president, general manager or coach is directing and/or orchestrating such religious rituals, as this goes to the heart of the employer-employee relationship governed by state and federal law.

The issue here has nothing to do with players promoting religion. In 1978, the San Francisco Giants had a “God Squad” of born-again Christians led by reliever Gary Lavelle. This player-led team religious observance did not implicate federal and state employment laws because management was not involved.

Could an Atheist Start for Warriors?

Mark Jackson makes no secret of his religious commitment. Until his post-Game 6 interview, I had never heard a professional coach refuse to discuss game events so as to only talk about God’s role. I thought at the time how the Colorado-based Focus on the Family must have felt about Jackson’s linking God to the Warriors’ victory, since I assume most are Nuggets fans. But athletes and coaches routinely attribute victories to God, and that’s not the issue here.

Nor is it relevant that Jackson was accused of religious hypocrisy when his affair with a stripper was revealed last year. Like other Warrior’s fans, I don’t care what Jackson believes or does in his private life so long as he is a successful coach. And he is clearly that. He has gotten more than anyone believed possible out of his young players, and their respect for him is obvious.

But Jackson is taking the Warriors “We Believe” mantra of 2007 to uncomfortable and potentially illegal levels.

Consider Green’s comment to Gary Radnich on KNBR that the biggest impact Jackson had on him was directing him on a “path to God.” What legal theory says that it is permissible for a secular employer to set an employee on a particular religious course?

Jackson’s defenders would say that this does not show the coach has discriminated against non-believers. But think of what it says about the Warrior’s work environment. Players eager for more playing time know their coach views the team’s fortunes as directed by “God’s will:” what are the odds that a young, impressionable player is going to reject Jackson’s suggestion that they “find God” or join a team prayer meeting?

A player exercising his religious freedom to reject such overtures could easily find himself being portrayed as “selfish” or “not a team player.” Their playing time could be reduced and career prospects imperiled. The Warriors only have a 12-man roster, so, unlike the much larger baseball and football teams, a player not attending an off-day prayer session, for example, more easily stands out.

Jackson often says he wants players with strong character. But for him, strong character is defined as believing in a Christian God, and following the Christian brand of religion.

And to those who say that Jackson’s primary goal is winning, and that he would start a practicing Jew, Muslim, or even an Atheist to achieve that goal, I suggest they see the film “42” or examine how few African American head coaches there are in Division 1A football in 2013. If winning were the sole factor in employment decisions, Satchel Paige would have pitched in the major leagues at 19 rather than 42. And we would not see colleges still hiring inferior white football coaches over far more qualified blacks.

Racism, religious bias, sexism and homophobia routinely result in the better qualified being unfairly treated. Let’s not pretend the NBA is immune from this.

When asked about Jason Collins last week, Jackson said “as a Christian man, I have beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong,” and that he would be “praying” for Jason Collins and his family.” He certainly has a right not to join other NBA coaches and players in praising Collins’ courage, but a player who wanted to play in the NBA as openly gay would certainly not see coach Jackson as offering a supportive environment (this despite the team’s openly gay President, Rick Welts).

Jackson’s creation of a Warriors “God Squad” will not stop the team from winning a title (and with Jerry West making draft selections this is a real possibility). But it is the type of situation that could explode should the team reverse course.

Team management should remind Jackson of his legal duty to maintain a religious tolerant work environment. This means that he must rely on players rather than himself to convert others on the team to the Christian path. The team’s success does not insulate it from complying with the legal protections against religion discrimination, and you can be sure that a coach who pushed players away from Christian belief would find himself on the hot seat regardless of titles won.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He knows the Warriors have not won in San Antonio since 1997 but still believes they can win this series.