SCOTUS’s decision to allow prayer in public school isn’t religious liberty

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled 6-3 that a high school football coach was allowed to pray with his team on the public school’s football field. On its surface, the ruling might seem fairly benign—but it isn’t. It overturns decades of previous decisions regarding prayer in school, and as a (non-Christian) person of faith, this decision absolutely terrifies me.

The case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District involves a football coach’s post-game prayers. After his quiet, private prayers grew in size (with players joining him) and in visibility (taking place on the 50-yard line), the district offered the coach an alternate place to pray after games. He refused and was placed on paid administrative leave. After a poor performance evaluation, he filed a lawsuit against the school district. The lower courts found that his prayers amounted to government speech and weren’t protected by the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.

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In the Court’s published opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, “The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.”

Writing for the dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that the ruling weakens the separation of church and state.

“It elevates one individual’s interest in personal religious exercise, in the exact time and place of that individual’s choosing, over society’s interest in protecting the separation between church and state, eroding the protections for religious liberty for all,” Sotomayor wrote. “Today’s decision is particularly misguided because it elevates the religious rights of a school official, who voluntarily accepted public employment and the limits that public employment entails, over those of his students, who are required to attend school and who this court has long recognized are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection.”

I consider myself to be a person of faith. I am active in my church. But I am not a Christian. Where does this leave me and my kids?

As noted in the New York Times, for 60 years, the Supreme Court has consistently rejected prayer in public schools when it was required or deemed part of a ceremony like a high school graduation. In 2000, the court ruled that prayers led by students at high school football games violated the First Amendment’s prohibition of government establishment of religion. Yet in this case, the Supreme Court allows prayer—by a coach.

While the decision is being celebrated as victory for religious liberty, the decision actually destroys it and further erodes the separation of church and state. In another recent decision, the Court held that private religious schools were entitled to government funding via a tuition program.

What the majority of the Court—and those who are celebrating this as a victory—forget, is that doing something inevitably excludes those who do not do that thing. It “others” anyone who does not fit in with majority. In this case, it excludes anyone who doesn’t pray with the coach.

I consider myself to be a person of faith. I am active in my church. But I am not a Christian. Following these decisions, I am left to wonder: where does this leave me and my kids? If my son’s football coach chooses to pray after the game, will my son lose playing time if he chooses to skip it? Where does this leave the children who are not Christian yet are constantly surrounded by it? What does this mean for kids who, part of religious minority or simply not religious at all, looked at school as the one place where they didn’t feel quite so different?

The decision fails to acknowledge the coercive impact religious practices have, especially from teachers and their peers. For many kids, school is their safe place. Teachers are their heroes. Their teachers and coaches also hold an immense amount of power—power to give them additional help, attention or playing time. And power to deprive the of help, attention and playing time too. Allowing prayer in public school, especially when led by a coach or teacher, is indoctrination.

“Students look up to their teachers and coaches as role models and seek their approval,” Sotomayor wrote. “Students also depend on this approval for tangible benefits. Players recognize that gaining the coach’s approval may pay dividends small and large, from extra playing time to a stronger letter of recommendation to additional support in college athletic recruiting.”

The National Education Association, the nation’s leading teacher’s union for teachers, has also expressed concern about the ruling, saying that it “ignores the real-life pressure and coercion” that students will feel when teachers or school officials have religious observances in class or at school events.

My faith is an important part of my life, as it is for many people. It is precious to me because it is something that I came to on my own. My spiritual life and religious practices are sacred because they are chosen by me, not thrust upon me by anyone else. I am trying very hard not to thrust a religion on my own children, but rather to give them the spiritual fluency and tools to find their own spiritual path. Bringing religion into public school makes that darn near impossible, however.

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My faith should not have to default to the mainstream. Nor should anyone else’s. There can be no freedom of religion without freedom from religion when it comes to the government and public school.

“Families ‘entrust public schools with the education of their children… on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family,'” wrote Sotomayor in her dissent.

To which I say, amen.

Echoing the dissent: “[T]oday’s decision is no victory for religious liberty.”

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