High Court Denies Coach’s Appeal on Football Team Prayers

By Mark Walsh — March 02, 2009 1 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The U.S. Supreme Court today denied the appeal of a high school football coach who was seeking the right to bow his head or take a knee when his players engage in voluntary pre-game prayers.

In the coach’s case, the appeal on behalf of Marcus A. Borden of East Brunswick High School in New Jersey said the longtime head football coach did not seek to pray or join his players in pre-game prayers.

“Rather, he sought only to engage in two silent, respectful gestures: to bow his head when students pray at the pre-game dinner, and to continue to ‘take a knee’ with the team when they conclude the pre-game locker room meeting with a player-led prayer,” said the appeal in Borden v. School District of the Township of East Brunswick (Case No. 08-482).

According to court papers, Coach Borden led or participated in prayers with his players for many years. But in 2005, school administrators told the coach he could not participate in the students’ voluntary prayers anymore. After failing to get clarification on whether he could bow his head or take a knee along with the players, the coach sued the school district, alleging that its guidelines violated his First Amendment right of free speech.

Borden won at the district court level but lost before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia. A three-judge panel ruled unanimously last April that the school district’s policy was not unconstitutionally vague and that Borden’s on-the-job desire to bow his head or take a knee was not speech on a matter of public concern and thus was not protected under the First Amendment. The panel also concluded that the coach’s desired conduct would be an unconstitutional government establishment of religion and “hence, the school district had no choice but to prohibit it.”

Borden’s appeal to the Supreme Court was joined in a friend-of-the-court breif filed by the American Football Coaches Association, which called on the justices to clarify what public school coaches may do when their players initiate team prayers.

“Football and team prayer go together as naturallly as touchdowns and extra points,” the association’s brief said.

The justice’s declined without comment to hear the coach’s appeal.

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