Coach May Not Join Team Prayers, Court Rules

By Mark Walsh — April 15, 2008 1 min read
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A high school football coach with a long history of participating in, and sometimes leading, his team’s prayers may not continue to bow his head for pre-meal grace or take a knee during pre-game prayers, a federal appeals court ruled today.

Two judges on the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, said the history of Marcus Borden, the head football coach at East Brunswick High School in New Jersey, was critical to their ruling, which overturned a federal district court opinion that had allowed the coach to bow and kneel, so to speak.

“A reasonable observer would have knowledge of Borden’s extensive involvement with the team’s prayers over the past twenty-three years during which he organized, participated in, and led prayer,” the court said in Borden v. School District of the Township of East Brunswick. “Based on this history, we hold that a reasonable observer would conclude that Borden is showing not merely respect when he bows his head and takes a knee with his teams and is instead endorsing religion.”

The concurring judge said he believes the coach’s kneeling and head-bowing might violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against government establishment of religion even absent his 23-year history of “promoting team prayer.”

The concurring judge includes in his opinion this photo from The Boston Globe of Coach Borden kneeling with his players in 2006, after the coach won in the district court.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.