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A federal appeals court ruled a New Jersey high school football coach who bowed his head while students on his team led prayer broke the law.
The decision against coach Marcus Borden of East Brunswick High School, however, will be appealed, said John Whitehead, president of the Virginia-based civil-liberties group the Rutherford Institute.
"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," he said. "This undermines a time-honored tradition that has less to do with religion that it does athletic tradition. It's a sad statement on our rights as Americans that schools are no longer bastions of freedom."
Borden's practice was to bow his head silently or "take a knee" while students on his football team led prayer prior to games.
But in 2005, officials at East Brunswick High School adopted a policy prohibiting representatives of the school district from participating in student-initiated prayer, even though it had been a regular part of the team's pre-game activities for 25 years.
The school concluded while it could not infringe on the students' constitutionally protected right to pray, it could limit the actions of coaches, who are public employees and whose participation allegedly would violate "the separation of church and state."
U.S. District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh ruled the following year the district's interpretation was wrong and that school officials were violating Borden's rights to free speech, freedom of association and academic freedom.
The district, however, challenged the ruling and, aided by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, argued Borden lacked any constitutional rights to expression or academic freedom because of his duties as teacher and coach.
The appellate judges concluded Borden's acts "cross the line and constitute and unconstitutional endorsement of religion."