Football Coaches Push N.J. School Prayer Case At U.S. Supreme Court

A national association of football coaches has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a legal controversy from New Jersey dealing with a coach who has a long history of praying with students.

The American Football Coaches Association represents football coaches at all levels, including many at public high schools. The organization took an interest in the case of Marcus Borden of the East Brunswick School District, who had led prayers and organized other religious activities for students for 25 years.

When school officials told Borden to stop, he sued, asserting that all he really wanted to do was bow his head and “take a knee” as a sign of respect while players engaged in voluntary prayer.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously against Borden earlier this year, declaring that in light of Borden’s long history of directing students’ devotionals, his actions could reasonably be construed as intended to promote religion.

Americans United represented the school district in the Borden v. School District of the Township of East Brunswick case.

The organization of coaches argues in a brief filed before the Supreme Court that “prayer has become indelibly a part of football.”

Asserts the group, “When life gets serious, people pray. When life transitions from one stage to the next – graduation, marriage, parenthood, retirement, death – people pray. There is a reason why persons are not typically moved to pray before playing monopoly, or bridge, or a round of golf with friends, but frequently are moved to pray immediately prior to or after playing a high school or college football game.

“It’s not just the violent nature of the sport and the ever-present possibility of serious and perhaps life-altering injury; it’s also the sense that these games are important signposts marking the road to becoming an adult,” the coaches’ brief argues. “But whatever the reasons, football players pray.”

The group cites a survey of 300 college and high school football coaches that found that 95 percent of teams engage in some form of prayer before games.

Americans United argues that coach-led prayer is clearly unconstitutional under the Supreme Court’s precedent striking down coercive school-sponsored religious activities. Public school teachers and administrators cannot lead students in prayer, and neither can coaches, says AU.

According to AU, there is no reason for the Supreme Court to hear another appeal of Borden’s case. The organization argues that the law regarding school prayer is settled and says there is no need for the high court to revisit it.

The Supreme Court is presented with about 8,000 petitions each term but decides to hear fewer than 80 of them. A decision in the Borden case should be made within a few months.

“The Supreme Court will consider the petition in due course, but we don’t see anything in it that should warrant the Supreme Court’s attention,” AU Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee, told the East Brunswick Home News Tribune.