WASHINGTON — Coach Marcus Borden used to bow his head and drop to one knee when his football team prayed. But the Supreme Court on Monday ended the practice when it refused to hear the high school coach's appeal of a school district ban on employees joining a student-led prayer.
The decision on the case from New Jersey could add another restriction on prayer in schools, advocates said.
"We've become so politically correct in terms of how we deal with religion that it's being pretty severely limited in schools right now, and individuals suffer," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization that focuses on First Amendment and religious freedom issues.
But Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said some parents had complained about Borden leading prayers before the East Brunswick, N.J., school district ordered him to stop and banned all staff members from joining in student-led prayer.
"The bottom line is people in positions of authority, like a coach, have to be extremely careful about trying to promote their ideas, or implying that if you don't pray, you may not play," Lynn said.
The high court without comment refused to reconsider the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision upholding the ban.
The district established the ban in 2005 after parents complained about Borden, coach at East Brunswick High School since 1983, sometimes leading prayers at the Friday afternoon team pasta dinner or in the locker room before games. Borden said he wanted to show respect for the students engaged in prayer by bowing his head silently and dropping to one knee.
The district, Borden argued, was violating his free-speech rights by ordering him to stop action he called secular signs of respect. After the ban, the coach stood at attention for the remainder of the season while the students prayed.
Judge D. Michael Fisher, writing for the Philadelphia appeals court, said Borden's past action of leading the prayers made his head-bowing seem inappropriate. "A reasonable observer would conclude that he is continuing to endorse religion when he bows his head during the pre-meal grace and takes a knee with his team in the locker room while they pray," Fisher said.
Messages left for Borden and lawyer Ronald Riccio were not immediately returned Monday.
"With teachers and students, individual expressions are being limited. There's just a concept out there that religion doesn't belong in schools," said Whitehead, whose group acted as co-counsel for Borden. He said he does not know what Borden would do now.
School employees should avoid looking like they're endorsing religion in any way, said Lynn, whose group represented the school district.
"Coaches are not supposed to be promoting religion; that's up to students and parents and pastors," Lynn said.
The Supreme Court ended school-sponsored prayer in 1962 when it said directing that a prayer be said at the beginning of each school day was a violation of the First Amendment. The justices reaffirmed the decision in 2000 by saying a Texas school district was giving the impression of prayer sponsorship by letting students use loudspeakers under the direction of a faculty member for prayers before sports events.
The case is Borden v. School District of the Township of East Brunswick, 08-482
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