NEWARK, N.J. — The East Brunswick High School football coach has won his court fight to kneel on one knee and bow his head while players pray before games, a federal judge has decided.
The school district in the fall barred participation by the coach, Marcus Borden, who sued the district last November, claiming his constitutional rights were being violated.
U.S. District Judge Dennis M. Cavanaugh ruled July 25 in favor of the coach, finding that "taking a knee" is not praying.
"For the coach, who is looked at as the glue to hold all of this together and foster team spirit, to not be allowed to participate in these traditions — even in the passive way — just doesn't seem right," Cavanaugh wrote.
The decision appears to end the dispute.
In a statement, the East Brunswick Board of Education said it was pleased "to get direction from the court as to what Mr. Borden could and could not do." The board said the ruling would allow Borden, 51, to show respect but not pray with his students.
Borden lawyer Ronald Riccio said the ruling told coaches "there is one thing they can do."
The Middlesex County school district in October prohibited Borden from participating in team prayers following complaints from some parents. Borden, the coach for 23 years, said he sometimes led prayers at the Friday afternoon team pasta dinner or in the locker room before games. He resigned, but then rescinded his resignation and sued.
The school board contended that students have a constitutionally protected right to pray, but that coaches, as public employees, did not have the same right.
Borden said the prayers were voluntary, but the district argued, "They will become an unambiguous signal that to become part of the 'family unit' that (Borden) strives so hard to achieve, a football player must pray along with his coach and his team."
The district and Borden both said that the team had pre-game prayers before Borden became coach.