First Amendment Fumble: Public School Coaches Should Stick To Football, Not Faith

Some coaches apparently believe they have the right to instruct young people on how to pray as well as how to play. They have no such right.

Earlier this year, Americans United assisted a New Jersey public school district that sought to rein in a football coach who was leading students in pre-game prayers.

Marcus Borden of East Brunswick High School had been leading and directing prayer for nearly 25 years. When administrators at East Brunswick told him to stop, Borden initially resigned – by not bothering to show up at a game and leaving the kids without a coach. He then sent an e-mail explaining that he was unwilling to coach without team prayers. But then he spoke to a lawyer and got a better idea:   He sent the school board a letter explaining that he was rescinding his resignation so that he could sue the school district instead.

Perhaps realizing his case was weak, Borden began insisting that all he really wanted to do was bow his head and "take knee" while players prayed voluntarily. He managed to prevail with this argument at the first level of the federal courts. AU offered to handle the school's appeal.

AU Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee argued the case and won. On April 15, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 that East Brunswick officials did not violate Borden's rights. The court said the school had the right to curb Borden's actions to prevent church-state violations.

Borden's attorney is being assisted by the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia group hostile to separation of church and state. They have asked the Supreme Court to hear the case, leading to a fresh round of news stories about it. Among them were a remarkably short-sighted editorial in support of Borden by the East Brunswick Home News Tribune and a distorted article about the case by Rutherford Institute founder John W. Whitehead in Liberty magazine.

In Liberty (a publication of the Seventh-day Adventist Church), Whitehead asserts that the football prayers have always been student-led and that Borden merely wanted to silently bow his head out of respect.

This is simply not true. The court record shows that over a 23-year period, Borden organized the prayers, often led them himself, chose students to lead them and sometimes brought in "chaplains" to offer pre-meal prayers. Borden moved to a more passive posture only when the situation went to court. Whitehead must know this, since his attorneys worked on the case. Borden always led the locker-room prayers, before every game for his whole tenure as coach.

It's also important to remember how students who protested the prayers were treated. Several were attacked on a student-run blog. One commenter wrote, "Damn Jews....then you wonder why Hitler did what he did back in the day."

This issue is by no means confined to New Jersey. Apparently, many public school coaches believe they have some kind of right to lead players in worship. Some do much more. A South Carolina newspaper reported recently on football coaches in that state who take players to football training camps that are actually "Jesus camps."

The Florence Morning News reported that coaches from all over the state took players to a three-day summer football camp in Spartanburg sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). The event included instruction about football during the day and a heavy dose of proselytism in the evenings. Devotions were held every night.

"We've done it two years in a row, and it's the best thing we ever did," Hemingway High School football coach Ken Cribb said. "We brought 36 kids, and 32 of them gave themselves to Christ."

Imagine this scenario: Jim, a public high school math teacher, has 20 students in his class. Ten students are Protestant, five are Roman Catholic, two are Jewish and three are unaffiliated. Teacher Jim takes the class to an "Algebra Camp" that's really a cover for fundamentalist proselytizing. There the kids are pressured to convert and become "born-again" Christians, and 18 of them do so.

The parents are going to be just fine with this, right? No one's rights were violated, right?

Somehow I doubt it. Now re-play the scenario and imagine the camp in question was run by Scientologists, Mormons or Muslims. Everything is cool, right? Are we seriously supposed to believe that the coach was just exercising his religious freedom?

Here's the bottom line: The men and women who work in our public schools are responsible for educating our children, managing sports teams, dealing with administrative matters and tending to numerous other duties. None of their tasks are religious in nature. Parents get to decide what religion, if any, their own children are exposed to. Parents are perfectly capable of finding a house of worship or member of the clergy to aid them in that task. No public school official has the right to interfere in that relationship.

Some coaches apparently believe they have the right to instruct young people on how to pray as well as how to play. They have no such right. The federal courts have ruled repeatedly that school personnel have no business organizing, leading or sponsoring prayer and other forms of worship for their charges.

The sooner Coach Borden and his allies get that message, the better.