Apr 15, 2008

Americans United for Separation of Church and State praised today’s federal appeals court ruling that a New Jersey high school football coach does not have a constitutional right to engage in religious activities with students.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously rejected a legal challenge filed by Coach Marcus Borden of East Brunswick High School. Borden said he wanted to bow his head and “take a knee” with players before football games while allegedly voluntary prayers were recited by students.

The court, noting Borden’s 23-year history of organizing and leading prayers with players, said his actions, would be construed by a neutral observer as promoting religion.

“Public schools have the right and responsibility to protect students from religious coercion,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Parents, not public school staff, have the right to determine what religious exercises, if any, their children take part in.”

Borden’s actions came under scrutiny when parents complained about his prayer practices. At one point, the coach allegedly told athletes who did not want to participate in the prayers that they could wait in a bathroom. After some cheerleaders voiced concerns about Borden’s promotion of religion, they were attacked and called obscene names on a student-run blog.

After a lower court ruled in Borden’s favor, Americans United agreed to represent the East Brunswick Public Schools. AU Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee argued the Borden v. School District of the Township of East Brunswick case before the 3rd Circuit.

The three-judge panel held that the school district’s policy prohibiting staff participation in student prayer was not unconstitutional, rejecting Borden’s claims that the policies violated his constitutional rights.

“We find that, based on the history of Borden’s conduct with the team’s prayers, his acts cross the line and constitute an unconstitutional endorsement of religion,” wrote Judge D. Michael Fisher. “Although Borden believes that he must continue to engage in these actions to demonstrate solidarity with his team, which is perhaps good for a football team’s unity, we must consider whether a reasonable observer would perceive his actions as endorsing religion, not whether Borden intends to endorse religion.”

Continued Fisher, “[I]n Borden’s case, the conclusion we reach today is clear because he organized, participated in, and led prayer activities with his team on numerous occasions for twenty-three years. Thus, 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.”

The appellate panel said the school policy on religion was necessary to ensure the separation of church and state.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.