Reviews | Supreme Court ruling on praying football coach was wrong
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that when the Supreme Court rendered a unprecedented decision on religion in June, the case involved a football coach in Bremerton, Wash., who met with praying players at the 50-yard line after football games.
The local school board — in agreement with about 60 years old of jurisprudence – said the coach, Joseph Kennedy, violated the legal principle that school officials should not, directly or indirectly, impose their religious views on students. The court’s 6-to-3 conservative majority disagreed, insisting that Kennedy’s act of prayer was protected by the First Amendment.
This decision was wrong – not because public schools should be devoid of any religious expression, but because students should not feel pressure from their teachers, administrators or coaches to be or not to be religious, much less subscribe to a particular faith.
Opinion: Trying to shield students from a coach’s prayers has done them a disservice
Judge Neil M. Gorsuch’s opinion for the majority claimed that a coach’s prayer immediately after a game was an entirely private action – “he offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied”, wrote Gorsuch – when in fact it was a highly private action. public display.
Judge Sonia Sotomayor highlighted the factual absurdity of Gorsuch’s claim by taking the unusual step of including photos in her dissent. They showed a large group of players surrounding the coach as he prayed. Yes, they may have felt a little pressure to join him.
“Today’s ruling is particularly wrong,” Sotomayor wrote, “because it elevates the religious rights of a school official, who has voluntarily accepted public employment, and the limitations that public employment entails, compared to those of its students, who are required to attend school and who this Court has long recognized as particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection.
My concern with this decision comes not from hostility to religion but from the opposite impulse. The surest way to inspire resentment of the faith’s public role is to upset the careful balance required by the First Amendment and ignore the rights of religious minorities, including those who reject the faith altogether. .
The First Amendment’s religious clause guarantees freedom of conscience and belief by emphasizing two imperatives: the government cannot pass a law that would affect “the establishment of religion,” but neither can it interfere with its “free exercise”.
Recognizing “the tension” between the establishment of the amendment and the free exercise clauses, wrote Sotomayor, is at the heart of protecting religious liberty.
The school district, she argued, “was happy to accommodate Kennedy’s desire to pray at work in a way that did not interfere with her homework or the approval risk perceptions” of her particular faith. . But the majority of the court claimed there was no tension, in part by misrepresenting the facts of the case.
The decision will exacerbate divisions on an issue around which people of goodwill have found ways to take the concerns of religious and secular people seriously.
A better path was charted by one of the unsung achievements of Bill Clinton’s presidency, an exercise in building consensus on the role of religion in public schools. The effort drew on views across the lines of philosophy and theology to assert that religious students have important rights but that as government-run institutions, public schools do not can impose religious opinions on anyone, directly or indirectly.
The result was the Memorandum on Religious Expression in Public Schoolspublished in July 1995, which detailed the religious rights of students and the obligations of educators and administrators.
On the one hand, he insisted that “nothing in the First Amendment converts our public schools into religion-free zones, nor does it require that all religious expression be left at the school gate. While the government cannot use schools to coerce the conscience of our students or to convey official endorsement of religion, government schools also cannot discriminate against private religious expression during the school day.
At the same time, the memorandum continues, “the right to engage in voluntary prayer or religious discussion without discrimination does not include the right to have a captive audience listening, or to coerce other students into participating. . Teachers and school administrators should ensure that no student is in any way coerced into participating in religious activity.
The underlying message of mutual respect is one that the court should have taken more seriously. We have enough problems in our public schools. We don’t need to turn them into religious battlegrounds.