A federal appeals court in Philadelphia will hear oral arguments on Wednesday, Oct. 3, in an important case challenging a public school football coach’s involvement in prayer with his team.
At issue before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Borden v. School District of the Township of East Brunswick is whether New Jersey high school football coach Marcus Borden has the right to encourage or promote prayer among members of his team.
“Coach Borden is supposed to focus on how his students play, not how they pray,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “This coach has a long history of meddling in the religious lives of players and others. He has overstepped his bounds, and the court should uphold the school district’s right to rein him in.”
Borden, a coach and Spanish instructor at East Brunswick High School, asserts he merely wants to bow his head and go down on one knee as a way to show respect while the players engage in voluntary prayer. Americans United, which is defending the school district, charges that Borden has a long history of promoting prayer and other religious activities in the past. The religious practices Borden promoted for 23 years, AU says, are not voluntary.
Borden won a lower court ruling last year, when a federal judge accepted his argument that his actions were not religious in nature. The decision was significant because it marked the first time a federal court had approved such activities.
The appeal is important because it will determine if that ruling survives. If Borden is allowed to promote prayer among players, other coaches, teachers and school officials will undoubtedly try to do the same in other parts of the country.
In legal briefs, AU attorneys document Borden’s lengthy history of engaging in prayer and other religious activities with players, cheerleaders, staff and others. Borden routinely opened pre-game meals and locker room huddles with prayers or arranged for clergy to deliver them. It was only after his practices were questioned that Borden asserted that bowing his head and genuflecting are secular activities designed to show respect.
Borden called his pre-game prayers a “rite” and insisted they were intended to build team unity. But some players, cheerleaders and their parents protested, causing school officials to order Borden to stop leading prayers.
The brief also points out that even after Borden was ordered to stop leading players in prayer, he manipulated the players and insisted they vote on having a supposedly “student-led” prayer.
Allowing Borden to persist in these activities, AU advises the court, would put school officials in an untenable situation.
The brief points out, for example, that if Borden prevails, other coaches, teachers and school personnel could demand the right to pray with students. Students especially impressionable youngsters in the lower grades could have religion imposed on them. That faith may clash with what a child’s family believes, clearly violating parental rights.