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Loss for coach is win for students’ religious liberty

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Gene Policinski
March 7, 2009

In turning away an appeal from a New Jersey football coach who prayed with his students, the U.S. Supreme Court has reaffirmed a long-held protection of the religious-liberty rights of individual players and other students.


The court decided March 2 not to hear a challenge to an East Brunswick, N.J., school district’s policy that forbids staff members from joining in student-led prayer. In doing so, the court stood by a series of decisions stretching back to 1962, when it found in Engel v. Vitale that schools can’t direct that a prayer be said at the beginning of each school day.


The unsuccessful appeal was pursued by longtime coach Marcus Borden, who wanted to bow his head silently and “take a knee” with his football players in a pre-game moment—far less than his active leadership in the past, according to court documents.


Some see such prohibitions on coaches, teachers, staff and others in schools as an improper limit on the school employee’s own religious freedoms. Others see no harm in bowing a head, or in kneeling with a team, as long as the student-athletes lead the prayer. Borden also argued that kneeling with the athletes and bowing his head during such prayer sessions promoted team unity, not religion.


And a few even raise objections by asking “So, what is a coach to do?” Walking away might well appear to be critical of such prayer sessions, and trying to standing stock still for the duration seems both awkward and impossible.


The justices declined to review the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Borden v. School District of the Township of East Brunswick, which rejected the notion that the coach could be perceived as just a bystander—given that for more than two decades Borden organized or led mandatory prayer meetings. The 3rd Circuit also rejected claims that the coach’s actions could be viewed as just “secular” and that constitutional issues were washed away by having students “vote” on whether or not to hold prayer sessions.


The 3rd Circuit decision upheld the principle that religion does indeed have a place in public schools, but that the school and the people who work there have no group or individual right to favor one religion over others, or to force their beliefs onto students by any means—and by extension, intrude on parents’ rights.


The final outcome also upholds a common-sense approach to tactics such as asking team captains to “poll” the team about holding a prayer service and then to report back on the votes. That approach fails in two ways: One, it’s unlikely that students will be able to make a truly independent decision without fear of running afoul of an authority figure. And two, a basic right such as religious freedom doesn’t come and go on the basis of a vote—be it conducted by a coach, a teammate or by Congress.


In the New Jersey case, some students who questioned the coach’s practices were subjected to threats, harassment and religious, racial and ethnic slurs—in person, on Web sites and at football games.


Those misguided and potentially criminal responses ignore two fundamental facts about religious liberty in this nation: Students in a public school may pray individually or gather on their own in a group before or after the game to pray. But neither the school nor its representatives can become entangled in the process, either by encouraging or inhibiting religious practice—and certainly not by forcing others to “take a knee” in deference or obedience to state-sponsored beliefs.


Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.

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