Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


The Field of Pray

By Shawn Healy
The Supreme Court declined to revisit a Third District Court of Appeals decision upholding a New Jersey school district's ban on employees joining student-led prayers. For the time being at least, the precedent will stand in a district that encompasses the Mid-Atlantic region. It is consistent with earlier rulings striking down school-sponsored prayers in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and student-driven prayer read over loud speakers at high school football games in Sante Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000).

In Engel, the Court declared the daily, voluntary recitation of the New York Regent's Prayer, which reads as follows, "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and beg Thy blessings upon us, our teachers, and our country," in violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. The 6-1 decision looked beyond the non-denominational nature of the prayer and its voluntary recitation, given that it was officially endorsed by a governmental entity.

In Sante Fe, a Texas school district's policy that allowed students to elect a chaplain and also to decide whether or not a non-denominational prayer was recited prior to high school football games over the public address system was nullified. The fact that the government was an actor in terms of the organization, venue, and sponsorship proved its fatal flaw according to the 6-3 majority.

Yesterday's denial leaves us without an underlying rationale, but we might assume that the aforementioned precedents speak for themselves. The plaintiff, former football coach Marcus Borden, used to bow his head and kneel while his team prayed before it took the field. Given that he was a paid employee of a school district using taxpayer dollars, he is a governmental representative and thus provided legitimacy to student-led prayer.

I must confess that during my former life as a high school basketball coach that I encountered similar circumstances, but was not as well-versed in First Amendment jurisprudence as I am now. While my team initiated a prayer on the way out of the locker room prior to each game, I lingered on the side until they were finished, neither encouraging or discouraging their actions. I am a man of faith and as a player participated in such rituals, but a gray area emerged with my new duties as a coach, and I decided to error on the side of caution.

Call it blind luck or skilled prognostication, but nearly a decade later I stand on the side of settled law.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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