Prayer Case Still in Court

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.10, November 2006,

A year ago, Marcus Borden was in the middle of a court battle over what a coach is allowed to do during student-led team prayers. The East Brunswick (N.J.) High School Head Coach challenged a directive from his school’s administration that he could no longer recognize or participate in team prayers. In July, a U.S. District Court judge cleared Borden to recognize player-initiated team prayer, but his court appearances are not over. The school board has since filed an appeal, which likely will not be heard for a year.

The case started in fall 2005 after the East Brunswick school district fielded complaints and the threat of a lawsuit from parents for allowing Borden to lead prayers at team dinners and in the locker room before games. In October, the district superintendent told Borden he could no longer lead or participate in prayer with his team. Borden consequently resigned his position. But he reconsidered after receiving legal advice and was back at the helm 10 days later. He filed suit in November asking the district to rescind its policy barring coaches from participating in voluntary team prayer.

Eight months later, in July 2006, a federal district court ruled that Borden could acknowledge player-led prayer by standing and bowing his head or taking a knee with his team, but he wasn’t permitted to lead a prayer. In arguing the case, Borden’s attorney, former dean of the Seton Hall University Law School, Ron Riccio, made it clear that the coach was not asking to be able to lead prayers for his athletes. Instead, if a prayer was initiated by a student, Borden wanted the right to acknowledge it. By allowing the coach to acknowledge a prayer, the court ruled that actions such as bowing his head or kneeling with members of his team do not constitute endorsement of religion, and thus do not run afoul of the U.S. Constitution.

Although the decision is not binding in any other jurisdiction, it may help clarify the issue. “This case provides some clarification on a national level as to what coaches can do when their players want to pray,” Riccio says. “That’s what this case was all about. This wasn’t a coach ordering his players to pray. This was about the players wanting to pray, and the coach finding out what he could do with them.”

Borden told Coaching Management it hasn’t been easy dealing with the sometimes negative media attention, but declined to comment further because of the pending appeal. “He’s trying to insulate his players the best he can,” Riccio says. “He’s doing his job as a coach and keeping them focused on being successful student-athletes.”

Riccio doesn’t expect a ruling from the appellate court for at least nine to 12 months. In the meantime, the district court’s original decision stands, and Borden was able to bow his head or kneel with the team to acknowledge his players’ prayers this season.