Prayer Battle Goes to Court

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.4, April 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1404/bbprayer.htm

Few high school football coaches have received more attention in the past year than East Brunswick (N.J.) High School’s Marcus Borden. But Borden wasn’t in the spotlight for his on-field success. Though he’s won a state title and five conference championships in his 23-year career, Borden made national headlines for doing something many coaches across the country do all the time—praying with his team.

In October 2005, East Brunswick’s district superintendent informed Borden that he could no longer lead or participate in prayers with his players at team meals or in the locker room. The superintendent was acting on advice from the school board’s attorney, who warned that the practice violated federal laws separating church and state. Borden immediately resigned his coaching position, but returned to his post two weeks later and quickly took the issue to court. He’s now seeking to force the school district to rescind its policy barring coaches from participating in voluntary team prayers.

“I have strong beliefs and principles. I don’t want anybody to think that I backed down on them,” Borden told the Central New Jersey Home News Tribune after he returned to the sidelines. “What we do is nothing more than Americana … It’s part of football tradition.” Indeed, Grant Teaff, President of the American Football Coaches Association, estimates that more than half of high school football coaches nationwide engage in some type of prayer with their players.

For the school district, the central issue is religious endorsement. If students independently choose to initiate a prayer—in the locker room, before a team meal, or in the stands during a game, for instance—they are protected by the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, which says government may not prohibit the free exercise of religion. If, however, the school or its employees are seen as endorsing the prayer, that violates the Establishment Clause, which essentially prohibits the government from promoting religion.

“It can be helpful to think about this as poles at either end of a continuum,” explains Alan Brownstein, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of California-Davis and an expert on church-state separation issues. “At one end, you have school-directed prayer, and that’s clearly beyond what the constitution allows. A coach or teacher cannot say ‘Let us pray’ and provide the words of the prayer. On the other end, it is clearly permissible for an individual student to express a prayer or other religious sentiments of his or her own in the locker room before a game. That is a protected activity.”

Ron Riccio, Borden’s attorney and former dean of the Seton Hall University Law School, believes the school district is interpreting the church-state separation principle too strictly. “It’s true that if the government is seen as giving its endorsement to a prayer, or if the prayer is coerced, then there’s a problem,” he says. “But Coach Borden is not saying, ‘I want to practice my religion.’ His argument is, ‘My athletes want to pray, and I’m the coach of the team, so I want to be there with them.’

“There’s a gray area about what school employees can do while the students are praying,” Riccio continues. “The case law says they can’t participate, but it doesn’t say exactly what that means.”

Riccio says Borden does not want to lead prayers for his athletes. But when a prayer is student-initiated, he wants the right to join in by taking a knee with his players in the locker room or bowing his head during grace before meals. Ultimately, it will be for the court to decide whether those acts constitute endorsement, and thus are illegal.

“If a reasonable observer wouldn’t see what he’s doing as promoting religion, we’re asking why he should be excluded from this team activity,” says Riccio. “What message is being sent when the coach bows his head or bends his knee? Does that mean he’s praying? Does that mean the government is endorsing religion? Or does that mean he’s being a good football coach?”

Until the lawsuit is resolved, Borden will continue as head coach, and will follow district policy by standing quietly and not moving during student-led team prayers.

For a longer look at issues surrounding prayer and athletic teams, go to our Web site at www.AthleticSearch.com and enter “Praying in Public” in the search window to read an article from our sister publication, Athletic Management.