U.S. Supreme Court Holds the Line in Case involving Coach-led Prayers

Apr 10, 2009

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected the appeal of a New Jersey high school football coach, who has been fighting for the right to bow and kneel in prayer with his football team.
The decision preserved a federal appeals court’s decision, which had concluded that Marcus Borden’s desire to bow his head and take a knee during team prayer is an endorsement of religious activity at a public school.
“Interesting, the Supreme Court chose not to disturb the 3rd Circuit’s decision, which rejected, among other things, arguments that the coach is more like a bystander and that this somehow mitigated the First Amendment concerns,” said Carla Varriale of Havkins Rosenfeld Ritzert & Varriale, LLP. “Simply put, public schools are not supposed to sponsor or endorse religious activities. No matter how sincere Coach Borden may be in his own beliefs, his role on the field was as a coach, not as a religious or spiritual educator.”
Borden was successful at the district court level in July 2006 when a judge decided that the East Brunswick Board of Education’s rules forbidding his right to express his religious views were unconstitutional. However, that decision was reversed by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal in April 2008.
In appealing that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court last fall, Borden’s attorney, Ronald Riccio, argued that his client’s case had national implications because “it addresses what public school educators are permitted to say and do when public school students engage in religious activities in their presence.”
The attorneys representing the defendants were quick to celebrate the victory.
In a prepared statement, Richard Katskee, an attorney with the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represented the board of education in court, said: “Children have a clear right to attend public schools without religious pressures being brought to bear by school personnel. Coach Borden was out of bounds, and the courts were right to blow the whistle. I hope that other coaches and school personnel learn a lesson from this.”
In another statement, Todd Simmens, president of the East Brunswick Board of Education, said: “Public school officials simply may not engage with students in religious activity. The board of education and district officials have, throughout this case, made certain no school employee supervises or otherwise participates in any type of prayer with our students. Needless to say, the board is pleased that, in this case, the courts reaffirmed this long-standing constitutional principle.”


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