April 28, 2022

School Prayer

“During nearly two hours of oral argument on Monday, a majority of the Supreme Court appeared sympathetic to a high school football coach who sued his school district after he lost his job because of his post-game prayers at the 50-yard line.” SCOTUSblog

See past issues

From the Left

The left urges the Supreme Court to rule against the coach and maintain precedents protecting religious minorities.

“Public schools in America today are absolutely brimming with religious activity, full of Good News Clubs and Christian Fellowship Associations and Bible study groups and hundreds of other student organizations. To operate in schools, they have to be primarily student-led, but the idea that public schools are a place where Christianity is banished couldn’t be further from the truth…

“Nevertheless, conservatives hold on to the fantasy that because some department stores have signs reading ‘Happy Holidays’ and gay Americans are now allowed to marry, Christians in America have become an oppressed majority. In recent years, this has become its own article of faith on the right, not just an empirical claim about life in America but itself an emblem of identity… Their real problem is not that they’re oppressed but that they don’t want America to be a truly pluralistic society, one in which their particular traditions and doctrines are not dominant.”

Paul Waldman, Washington Post

“Precedent favors the school district, says Caroline Mala Corbin, a professor of law at the University of Miami in Florida, but if enough justices disagree, the Court could leave public schools vulnerable to religious displays from staff and educators. That would place religious minorities in a difficult position…

“‘The thing to understand is that there is a religious-liberty interest on both sides of the equation,’ Corbin tells me. ‘Also at stake are students’ religious-liberty rights.’… A parent complained that his atheist son ‘felt compelled to participate’ in the prayer, and that ‘he felt he wouldn’t get to play as much’ if he did not. ‘There was a lot of pressure on students to join these prayers,’ Corbin points out. ‘Granted, it’s not legal coercion in that they will be punished by the school, but the peer pressure is enormous.’… Should the Supreme Court favor Kennedy, ‘it will once again be siding with a Christian majority against the interests of a minority.’”

Sarah Jones, New York Magazine

The question, as Justice Elena Kagan put it, was about ‘coercion.’ As she pointed out, a football coach exerts enormous power in a high school setting. He can decide which student athletes start or play at all; he can recommend (or refuse to recommend) students for scholarships and jobs. If a coach with that kind of power conducts ‘voluntary’ prayer sessions after games, are the prayers really voluntary or a form of coercion? The answer to this question once seemed clear…

“In 2000, the justices banned a practice at a Texas high school where students led ‘voluntary’ prayers before football games… In Monday's argument, the school board's lawyer said a postgame prayer should meet the same fate. But Paul Clement, the lawyer for the coach, said the prayer in the Texas case was made over a loudspeaker and thus was more intrusive. More candidly, Clement suggested that the Texas case was obsolete under the court's current precedents and should be overruled.”

Jeffrey Toobin, CNN

From the Right

The right urges the Supreme Court to rule in favor of the coach and expand religious liberty.

The right urges the Supreme Court to rule in favor of the coach and expand religious liberty.

“According to [the so-called endorsement] test, the constitutionality of the school’s termination decision turns on whether a ‘reasonable observer’ would think that the district was endorsing Kennedy’s postgame prayers by permitting them… Not surprisingly, the reasonable observer often does the job poorly…

“Consider a few of many examples from the public school context alone, catalogued in an amicus brief filed on behalf of Notre Dame’s Religious Liberty Initiative: a student was suspended for saying ‘bless you’ when her classmate sneezed. A principal distributed a list of unacceptable holiday items—including candy canes, reindeer, and red- and green-colored items. A second-grader was prohibited from reading his Bible during free time…  

“A fifth-grader was forbidden from choosing God as her idol for a school assignment… A teacher required a Catholic student to wash off his Ash Wednesday ashes, and another forced a Muslim student to remove her hijab. Across the country, public school administrators have sterilized public schools of all things religious.”

Nicole Stelle Garnett and Elizabeth Totzke, City Journal

Plaintiff Joe Kennedy writes, “[the district suggested that] I walk across the field, up the stairs, across a practice field, into the main school building, down the hall and into the janitor’s office if I wanted to pray after games. I thought that would send a message that prayer is something bad that has to be hidden. I couldn’t send that message. So I simply asked to continue praying quietly on one knee at the 50-yard line after each game…

“Two days after my last postgame prayer, the school suspended me, even though it acknowledged there was ‘no evidence that students have been directly coerced to pray with’ me, and that I had complied with its directives ‘not to intentionally involve students.’… I was fired for taking a knee in prayer by myself at the 50-yard line for 15 to 30 seconds after high-school football games… That doesn’t seem like the Constitution I fought for in the Marine Corps.”

Joe Kennedy, Wall Street Journal

“The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco concluded that it would violate the Constitution if students could see coaches (or teachers) like Kennedy engaged in private, religious activity. That’s a frightful standard certain to drive good teachers and coaches like Kennedy out of the profession nationwide…

Unless the Justices intervene, teachers who can be seen praying over their lunch in the cafeteria may be subject to termination. If a teacher wears a crucifix, yarmulke, or hijab on campus, a school district may dismiss the teacher or coach for what Bremerton School District labelled, ‘demonstrative religious activity.’… Once, some players asked Coach Kennedy if they were allowed to pray after their game. He said ‘it’s a free country.’ Let’s hope that’s still true.”
Kelly Shackelford, Fox News

A libertarian's take

“If Kennedy wins, it potentially opens the door for any public‐​school employee, including principals and superintendents, to engage in prayer immediately after the conclusion of school events. That could send a message to district residents that if you are not of their religion, you do not fully belong. But prohibiting such expression specifically because it is religious, which is what the case targets, is discrimination against religion…

“The solution to the problem of diverse people having to all fund, and in many cases de facto attend, assigned government schools is to move from public schooling to public education. Let funds follow children to schools their families choose, and every family and educator will be able to freely seek what they think is right without having to impose it on those who disagree.”
Neal McCluskey, Cato Institute

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