Coach Borden Wins One for America
Published: August 1, 2006 | 4534th good news item since 2003
In a ruling that has national implications for every athletic department in the country, a federal judge has declared that a coach has the right to take part in the age-old practice of “taking a knee.”
On July 25, 2006, U.S. District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh ruled that officials at East Brunswick High School in East Brunswick, N.J., may not prohibit their head football coach Marcus Borden from exercising his First Amendment right to respectfully participate in his players’ voluntary, student-led prayers by silently bowing his head and taking a knee as the prayers are said.
Pre-game, student-led prayer has been a regular part of the game of football since before Coach Borden started leading the team in 1983. In fact, East Brunswick High’s practice of player-initiated, pre-game prayer has been in effect for over 25 years, with more than 2,000 former East Brunswick football players opting to voluntarily pray before taking the field on game days.
The prayers are a simple, solemn request for safety and honor on the field. But the practice quickly became a target for official school censure after some parents complained about a prayer that was offered at a pre-game pasta dinner. Quick to jump on the “thou-shalt-not-offend bandwagon,” school officials passed a policy in October 2005 prohibiting representatives of the school district from participating in student-initiated prayer. This policy effectively barred Coach Borden from bowing his head during team prayers. But school officials went so far as to order Borden, who also teaches Spanish and has held a post at East Brunswick High for 23 years, to stand still rather than bending a knee and bowing his head while his players recited pre-game prayers. The penalty for disobeying was disciplinary action, including the loss of his job as a coach and tenured teacher.
School officials justified their actions by insisting that while student athletes have the constitutionally protected right to pray, that privilege does not extend to coaches, who are public employees and whose participation would violate the “separation of church and state.” Borden responded to the prohibition by tendering his resignation in protest. But after thinking further about the matter, he changed his mind, rescinding his resignation so that he could continue coaching. At the same time, believing that he was taking “a stand for every high school football coach in America,” he also filed a lawsuit asking the courts to review the school’s prayer policy.
After making headlines, Borden’s case was watched closely by athletic directors all over the country who had been instructed to cease praying with their players. The impact was felt nationwide. According to Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, more than 50 percent of high school football coaches nationwide engage in team prayer.
Although school officials in this instance were lacking in common sense, U.S. District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh was not. In siding with Coach Borden, Judge Cavanaugh ruled that the school district had violated Borden’s constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of association and academic freedom when they prohibited him from silently bowing his head and “taking a knee” with his players while they engaged in student-initiated, student-led, nonsectarian pre-game prayers.
And what were these prayers that have caused school officials so much anguish? According to Borden, prayers typically followed along the lines of: “Dear Lord, please guide us today in our quest in our game, our championship…Please let us represent our families and our communities well. Lastly, please guide our players and opponents so that they can come out of this game unscathed, no one is hurt.”
In the big picture, the school’s attempt to forbid the small gestures of respect that Coach Borden wanted to show his football team is part of a national trend in which school and other government officials use the First Amendment Establishment Clause (or the so-called “separation of church and state” clause) as a justification for suppressing the rights of individuals whenever matters of faith are involved.
Religion is often treated like a four-letter word, especially by those in the public schools. This ruling sends school officials a clear message that there is a time and place when religious expression is both appropriate and constitutionally sound—and it’s okay if representatives of the school such as teachers and coaches want to acknowledge it.
After all, when you consider all the negative influences that surround our young people—drugs, alcohol, premarital sex, violence, etc.—wouldn’t you breathe a little easier knowing that they had at least one role model to look up to who understands the importance of teamwork, responsibility and concern for one’s fellow human beings?
I know I would.