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Members of the legal team for the Rutherford Institute have asked the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals to re-hear a case in which school officials ordered a football coach not to bow his head while his players voluntarily took part in a pre-game prayer.
"If this ruling is allowed to stand, it will mean that high school teachers across the United States will have no free speech or academic freedom rights at all," said John W. Whitehead, president of the organization, in a statement yesterday.
"This undermines a time-honored tradition that has less to do with religion than it does athletic tradition. It's a sad statement on our rights as Americans that schools are no longer bastions of freedom," he said.
A three-member panel of the court recently ruled that the First Amendment does not protect such expressive conduct exhibited by football coach Marcus Borden.
The case developed in 2005 when officials at East Brunswick, N.J., High School adopted a policy prohibiting representatives of the school district from participating in student-initiated prayer, which has been a regular part of the high school football team's pre-game activities for more than 25 years.
The school determined that while it could not prevent legally students from praying if they chose, they could halt any recognition of that act by coaches because they are public employees and their participation would violate the "separation of church and state."
District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh earlier had declared the district violated Borden's rights to free speech, freedom of association and academic freedom for either silently bowing his head or "taking a knee" while the players prayed.
The district, however, argued in conjunction with Americans United for Separation of Church and State that the coach did not have a constitutional right of expression or academic freedom.