Prayer at school SCOTUS ruling sparks campus religion debate

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to allow a high school football coach to pray on the field after games is expected to reopen a vigorous and likely tense debate among parents, educators and others about the extent to which religion can penetrate in public schools, California education and legal experts. said Monday.

Conservatives and some Christian leaders hailed the court’s action, saying it allowed for the personal religious expression of the coach and those who voluntarily followed him, a reasonable accommodation of religious rights and freedom of speech. expression. But civil liberties advocates and many educators have said allowing a coach or other school authority figure to lead a prayer amounts to the type of establishment of religion prohibited by the Constitution.

“The court has opened the door to prayer in schools more than at any other time in the past 60 years,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, constitutional law expert and dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law. “There will be a lot of litigation. And it is not at all clear where the court will draw the line.

A decision 60 years ago by the High Court to ban formal prayer in New York schools had set a clear line for school officials: that campus practices and policies must have strictly secular purposes. Monday’s decision blurred that line and will invite additional challenges for those who want more room for religious expression in schools, said John Rogers, a UCLA education professor and expert in training school administrators.

“One of the results of this decision is that it’s probably going to open up more conflict in schools,” Rogers said. “This is likely to create more challenges for principals and other district leaders as new efforts are made to bring religion into the public school space. In some school settings, religious minorities or people who are not affiliated with any religion will feel a sense of coercion or a sense of silence or alienation.

Monday’s ruling came in the case of Joe Kennedy, an assistant coach at Bremerton High School in Washington state. Kennedy began kneeling alone at the 50-yard line after games to pray, although the sessions quickly became highly publicized and drew crowds of players and spectators onto the field.

When the prayers became a public event, school officials warned the coach that they could be seen as violating the Constitution’s ban on an “establishment of religion”. Kennedy was suspended when he refused to follow district advice. He was not rehired for the following year.

Lower courts ruled against Kennedy, but the Supreme Court’s conservative majority found the coach’s prayers were protected by two other 1st Amendment provisions – the free speech clause and the ‘free exercise’ clause. of religion.

“The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and repression, for religious and non-religious views,” Judge Neil M. Gorsuch wrote for the 6-3 majority.

The court action sparked heated discussion Monday on a Facebook group for parents who support Los Angeles Unified School District teachers and are generally aligned with their union.

A parent applauded Kennedy’s protection of free speech and religious freedom rights, saying the coach never coerced others into joining the prayer sessions. But several other parents objected, saying players and pupils might feel ridiculed or left out if they were among the minority who did not join in the prayers.

Other parents wondered how receptive the High Court would have been to freedom arguments if the coach in question had been a Muslim, who placed a prayer mat in the middle of the pitch and bowed in prayers in front of it. Allah.

“I don’t know if this Supreme Court would make a decision so far if it was a religion other than Christianity,” said Tracy Abbott Cook, one of the parents in the focus group. “And why does this coach have to bring religion into this moment in public? Maybe people want to get away from religion and politics when they go to a sporting event. . . . Why mess it all up?”

Superintendent of Los Angeles Schools. Alberto M. Carvalho said district policy already made it clear that employees were allowed to pray, but at their own pace and in their place. The district prohibits prayers that would inspire students to join, Carvalho said.

“Insofar as you engage in prayer, on your own, outside of reality [school] event – ​​and you didn’t compel anyone to accompany you in prayer – then this is in the guardrails of free speech, which you don’t lose when you enter a public school. he said. “If it goes beyond that, it will continue to not be allowed.”

But even in the nation’s second-largest school district, it seemed clear that those guidelines weren’t being consistently followed.

Football coaches at three LA Unified high schools said they were aware of rules requiring separation of religion and school duties, though they said players sometimes led prayers informally, sometimes in small groups.

Stafon Johnson, football coach at Dorsey High, said he regularly leads prayers just before and after games. “I’m just praying for their comfort, I’m praying for… injury-free, I’m praying for the other teams so they can travel safely,” said Johnson, who said he finds training brings comfort. to players.

He said he referred to “God” in his prayers but saw it as a universal term and that Muslim players and coaches “participated in their own way”.

Carvalho said he should know the details of Dorsey High’s prayer sessions, but they seemed “inconsistent” with district policy.

Ken Williams, an administrator for the Orange County school board, applauded the court for its decision, saying celebrating religious diversity and expressions of faith are central to American identity.

“I totally understand that you can’t force someone to pray or believe the same things that I believe,” said Williams, a Christian. “I think it’s very American, but I also think religion is important. This nation was founded by men of religious faith.

In the Clovis Unified School District of Central Valley, board member Steven Fogg said he would support a policy change to allow teachers and coaches to lead prayers at sporting events. The district previously only allowed students to lead prayers.

The district had for years opened school board meetings with a prayer, a routine interrupted after a federal appeals court ruled against the practice in 2018 in a case involving a Chino Valley school board.

“I hope people are not threatened by prayer. They shouldn’t be,” said Fogg, who is a Mormon. “Prayer should not be something that brings animosity, otherwise it is false prayer. We certainly don’t want anyone to feel left out. It should be something that brings people together. »

But lawyers who had opposed organized prayer on school grounds said the practice tended to become coercive and exclusive when directed by coaches and other authority figures. The ACLU of Washington noted that one of Kennedy’s players participated in the prayer against his own beliefs for fear of wasting playing time if he refused.

“This decision strains the separation of church and state — a fundamental tenet of our democracy — and potentially harms our youth,” said Taryn Darling, senior counsel for the ACLU of Washington.

“Some parties see a political game in making our public schools the scene of conflict,” said Rogers of UCLA. “And I think that’s to the detriment of public schools, which require some level of common purpose in order to advance our common interest in developing the abilities of young people to serve the wider community.”

Monday’s ruling did not overturn previous court rulings that barred more direct intrusions of religion into the curriculum and the school day.

In 1962, the High Court ruled in Engel v Vitale that the New York Board of Regents could not impose a prayer on students. The court rejected the New York educators’ proposal, even though they argued that their one-sentence prayer was non-denominational.

Judge Huge Black found that the simple opening prayer (“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on you, and we ask for your blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country. Amen.”) was, by its very nature sufficient to constitute an unlawful establishment of religion, even if participation in prayer was not overtly coerced.

In subsequent decades, the Supreme Court rejected an Alabama law allowing one minute of prayer or meditation during the school day and banned prayers led by religious leaders at graduation ceremonies. In 2000, the court also rejected a Texas school board policy that allowed students to decide, by majority vote, whether they wanted to have a student-led “invocation” at football games, graduations and other school gatherings.

“Constitutionally protected religious liberty is restricted when the state affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer,” Judge John Paul Stevens said in the 6-3 opinion quashing the school’s prayer plan. . Stephen Breyer is the only remaining judge on the court who concurred with this opinion. He is expected to retire this summer.

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