A veteran central New Jersey high school football coach has resigned after being told by school officials he could no longer lead his team in pregame prayer.
East Brunswick coach Marcus Borden was told last Friday by Schools Superintendent Jo Ann Magistro that some parents had complained about prayers Borden initiated at pregame meals and before the games.
After being told he would have to stop leading or taking part in the prayers, Borden stepped down from his position, just hours before his team's 21-0 loss to Sayreville that evening.
"I'm very disappointed," Borden said in an interview with News 12 New Jersey Tuesday. "Do I feel we were violating someone's rights? I don't think so."
But East Brunswick school officials think differently. According to school officials, the prayers violated the separation between church and state in public schools.
A spokeswoman for the district, Trish LaDuca, said students have the right to pray on school property during school events, but the prayer must be initiated by the students; otherwise it violates the law.
"A representative of the school district cannot constitutionally initiate prayer, encourage it or lead it," LaDuca told the Home News Tribune of East Brunswick. "Representatives of the school cannot participate in the student-initiated prayer."
During the television interview, aired Tuesday, Borden said what he was doing was not uncommon, and coaches across the state lead similar prayers as part of sporting events.
"I'm not out preaching, I'm not a preacher," said Borden, who has led the football program for 23 years. He has a 116-100-1 career record, and his team won the Central Jersey Group IV championship in 2004.
He is the founder of the Snapple Bowl, a charity all-star football game that has raised more than $150,000 for physically and mentally impaired children.
His resignation has divided the school community, with many students and parents supporting the coach.
On Saturday, a group of more than 50 members of the football team and some of their parents traveled to Borden's home and asked the coach to return.
Nancy Halupka, president of the school's football booster club, said she sympathizes with Borden and said the prayer tradition started long before he arrived at the school.
But school officials, who emphasized that they did not force Borden to resign, said some students felt uncomfortable with the prayer and their concerns should be treated with respect.
Magistro, the district's superintendent, said Borden's resignation won't become official until the school board meets on Oct. 20. She said the former coach can rescind his resignation at any time before the meeting, something Borden said was not likely.
"I believe that I made the right decision," said Borden, a Catholic. "I believe I made a decision based on principle. I believe that's who I am."