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PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Does a high school football coach endorse religion when he takes a knee or bows his head during his team’s student-led prayer? Does it matter if the coach has a prior history of leading prayers himself or asking ministers to do so? The bitter national debate over school prayer played out Wednesday in federal appeals court in a case brought by a New Jersey school district that fears a coach is crossing the line. One of the three 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges hearing the case, Theodore A. McKee, voiced concern for nonbelievers or non-Christians on the East Brunswick High School football and cheerleading squads. “Knowing the (coach’s) history, I’m not sure I’d want to say, ‘No, I don’t want to pray,’” McKee said. Coach Marcus Borden says the district is violating his free-speech rights by ordering him to cease actions he deems as secular signs of respect. A lower-court judge agreed with him. “How are you going to enforce this? Are you going to walk around with a ruler?” Judge Maryanne Trump Barry asked the school district, referring to Borden’s bowed head. “What if he has his head bowed but he says he’s not praying?” The U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 reaffirmed a ban on officially sponsored prayer in public schools with a ruling that said students could not lead crowds in prayer before football games, even though they can pray voluntarily in school. Still, the court’s rulings on the subject have left much in doubt. “This is a confused, difficult area of law,” Barry said. School officials agree that students have a constitutionally protected right to pray, but say that Borden, as a public employee, cannot participate. They also posed an alternate argument that he is flagrantly violating an October 2005 district policy � if not the divide between church and state � with his actions. Ronald Riccio, a Seton Hall law professor who represents Borden, said the coach followed the policy for the remainder of the 2005 season before deciding to challenge it. “He stood at attention, he froze, as if he were in shackles, while the students prayed,” Riccio said. Borden, the coach for 23 years, has said he sometimes led prayers at the Friday afternoon team pasta dinner or in the locker room before games. Since the 2005 policy was implemented, he said he no longer participates but wants to show respect for the students engaged in prayer. Legal advocacy groups on both sides of the school-prayer debate, including The Rutherford Institute and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, have joined the case. The court did not indicate when it would rule. The judges voiced dismay that the parties in this case could not work out a rule that would make all students feel comfortable. “In the end, what matters is how a reasonable student would perceive what Borden is doing,” McKee said.

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