AU Lauds Supreme Court's Refusal To Hear N.J. Football Prayer Case

Supreme Court Action Protects Religious Neutrality Of Public Schools, Says AU's Lynn

The U.S. Supreme Court made the right call today in refusing to hear a case from New Jersey dealing with a high school football coach who wants to pray with students, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State. 

Without comment, the justices announced that they will not hear an appeal of Borden v. School District of the Township of East Brunswick, a challenge brought by high school football coach Marcus Borden. The high court’s decision leaves in place a lower court order barring Borden from involvement in his students’ religious activities.

“A coach’s job is to teach kids how to play a sport, not promote religion,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “This case is a firm reminder that parents, not school personnel, are the rightful decision-makers when it comes to children’s religious upbringing.”

Borden claimed he merely wanted to show respect while players prayed by bowing his head and going down on one knee. But the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that Borden’s actions would be seen by students as official promotion of religion, given his 23-year history of organizing and leading prayer for students.

The Supreme Court struck down coercive forms of school-sponsored prayer in 1962 and declared mandatory Bible reading in schools unconstitutional the following year. Since then, the court has ruled uniformly that public schools cannot sponsor religious activities.

Americans United says the court record clearly showed that Borden had long been promoting worship activities among students. He often personally led pre-game prayer and for 14 years brought in a chaplain to pray with players prior to team meals. He later began assigning students to lead the devotions.

Borden discontinued these activities after school officials insisted because they had received complaints from parents.

After a U.S. district court ruled in Borden’s favor, Americans United offered to represent the East Brunswick Public Schools pro bono. AU Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee argued the case before the 3rd Circuit and won a ruling there on appeal.

Said Katskee, “Children have a clear right to attend public schools without religious pressures being brought to bear by school personnel. Coach Borden was out of bounds, and the courts were right to blow the whistle. I hope that other coaches and school personnel learn a lesson from this.”

“Public school officials simply may not engage with students in religious activity,” said East Brunswick Board of Education President Todd Simmens. “Consistent with this law, the Board of Education and district officials have, throughout this case, made certain that no school employee supervises or otherwise participates in any type of prayer with our students. Needless to say, the Board is pleased that, in this case, the courts have reaffirmed this long-standing constitutional principle.”

In addition to Americans United, the school district is also represented by Scarinci & Hollenbeck, LLC.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.