The public high school I attended, East Brunswick High School in central New Jersey, was and still is a microcosm of our country’s religious diversity. My classmates were Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Egyptian Copts, Catholics, Protestants and atheists. While there wasn’t perfect harmony all the time, our school district aimed to protect the religious freedom rights of everyone. But in 2005, when I was in the 8th grade, that goal was put to the test.
That year, a few football players, cheerleaders and parents alerted the superintendent that the high school football coach was leading Christian prayers before games, at team dinners and in the locker room. Coach Marcus Borden – or Señor Borden, as I knew him, because he also taught Spanish class – was leading prayers, taking a knee, bowing his head in participation and asking that all students stand and join in. And he told students who were uncomfortable during the prayer that they could wait in the bathroom until it was over.
Right away, our school did the right thing. The superintendent told Borden that he could not lead, encourage or participate in student prayer. This is exactly what the U.S. Constitution requires. Federal courts have consistently held that public school employees are forbidden to lead, initiate or participate in religious activities involving students, even when those activities occur before or after school. School staff must not participate in the students’ prayer in any way, and this means that coaches may not take a knee for player-led prayer before or after games. To be clear, students can lead genuinely voluntary and student-initiated prayer as long as it is not coercive or disruptive. But Borden wanted to violate the law and participate.
Unfortunately, Borden sued the school district, alleging that they had violated his religious freedom rights. But the district had simply followed the Constitution. The case wound its way through the courts, and eventually, the school district got a new set of lawyers in their effort to protect students’ religious freedom: the attorneys at Americans United for Separation of Church and State! A federal appeals court not only rejected Borden’s arguments that he had a First Amendment right to lead or join his students in prayer, but also concluded that his conduct actually violated that amendment. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2009, thus preserving AU’s victory on the school district's behalf.
While I wouldn’t work at AU for another decade, I already knew that Borden’s conduct was wrong in 2005. Public schools are a unifying force in our diverse community. But a coach and teacher leading Christian prayers made many students – including me – feel alienated in our own school. I remember Borden as a great coach and enthusiastic Spanish teacher. But even if they don’t mean to, a coach and teacher leading a prayer sends the message that every kid should join in – or they might never make it off the bench at the game or get extra credit in Spanish class. While I wasn’t on the football team or the cheerleading squad, I remember feeling frustrated that a coach and teacher was imposing his religious beliefs on our classmates.
As a Jewish student, hearing a Christian prayer endorsed by a teacher at a school event would really hurt. And unfortunately, some other students who supported Borden made hateful and anti-Semitic comments online about the Jewish students they believed had complained to the district in the first place. It divided our community and made religious minorities, including me, feel unsafe and unwelcome. All of this could have been avoided if the coach had simply followed the law.
But there’s a hero in this story: my public school district! I feel fortunate that I attended a public school that defended the religious freedom rights of all students. Their actions protected students like me and ensured that our school could remain welcoming to students of all faiths and none for years to come.
If you’re a student or teacher at a public school, you should get familiar with our new Know Your Rights guides so that you can be a defender of religious freedom too. If you see a violation like this one in your public schools, you can report it to us here. Who knows – one day, Americans United attorneys might be headed to court in your town to advocate for your religious freedom!