In 2007, Americans United argued in federal court that a public school district in New Jersey acted correctly when it ordered a football coach to stop praying with players and other students.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the school district’s favor against the coach, Marcus Borden of East Brunswick High School, in 2008 and confirmed that his actions were unconstitutional because they violated the First Amendment.
While the legal outcome of the case got the majority of attention, one aspect of the win that went under the radar was the key role student activism played in it.
Borden, who at the time had been the team’s coach for 23 years, would pray with players in the locker room before games and also at dinners that cheerleaders sometimes attended.
Some students felt uncomfortable but were unsure what to do. Evidently, two cheerleaders were taking Constitutional Law as their social studies elective and realized that Borden’s actions were unconstitutional, so they brought the matter to school officials.
When the news leaked out that cheerleaders had complained, many people assumed that two Jewish cheerleaders on the squad had raised the issue, which was inaccurate.
This assumption, however, created a hostile and anti-Semitic environment in what was once considered a religiously inclusive campus, and it became worse after the coach handed in his resignation in order to sue the school district.
An online thread, titled “Jewish cheerleaders who suck!!!,” appeared on a school listserve, and the girls received ugly threats and harassment.
Needless to say, this impact of the case showed how it difficult it can be for high school students to report a church-state separation violation – but it also underscored the importance of student activism.
The year 2017 marks AU’s 70th anniversary. As we look to the future, we see youth activism as increasingly important. We hope that the stories of young activists give other students the courage to recognize church-state violations and do something about them.
In light of this, AU is pleased to announce the launch of our second annual high school student essay contest. For our topic this year, we’re focusing on the church-state separation violations that frequently occur in American high schools and how students might solve them.
Any high school junior or senior in the United States can participate. Essays can be about:
* Teaching religiously based curricula in public schools, which includes: inaccurate versions of history based on religious teachings, creationism and sex education programs anchored in dogma.
* Mandating that public school students attend assemblies with religious content or pray.
* Discriminating against students because of the religion they practice or choose not to practice.
* Using religion as an excuse to discriminate against LGBTQ students.
In the essays, we’re asking students to explain why this issue encroaches upon the constitutional principle of church-state separation and tell us how they would solve a problem like this if one occurred (or if it has already) in their school.
Students may reference current events, U.S. History, primary sources, personal experiences, AU.org and protectthyneighbor.org in their essays.
The deadline for essays is April 15. The three winners will be awarded cash prizes, and the winning essay will be published in Church & State. (You can read last year’s winner here.)
Full details can be found here. If you are a high school student, consider entering the contest and share this material with your friends. If you’re no longer in high school, help us spread the word by sharing this information with the students and teachers you know!