SCOTUS must protect religious freedom
On April 25, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case, “Kennedy v. Bremerton School District,” involving a public school football coach who pressured his players to pray with him on the fifty-yard line. The court’s conservative majority appeared to signal support for the coach.
This is an important case for a nation where religious freedom and the separation of church and state are being questioned. But this case also has a personal importance for my family. You see, something quite similar happened to my daughter years ago. I’m sharing his story so other people can see for themselves why it’s wrong to impose a religion on children in public schools – and in the hope that the court does the right thing and protects freedom religious of the students.
Students have the right to their religious freedom, and it is the duty of public school employees to protect these rights.
In 2005, when my daughter Amanda was in high school in California, she was on the junior varsity football team at our local public school. One night she came home from a game and told my wife and me that her coach had been praying with the team. We learned that the coach said Christian prayers before every game.
My daughter felt uncomfortable with this; I was shocked and upset. The idea of a public school employee leading students in prayer went against everything I knew and understood about how the Constitution protects religious freedom.
My wife and I are practicing Buddhists, but we decided not to raise our children in a religious environment. We strongly believe that our children should make their own decisions about religion and spirituality. That’s why we’re grateful that the Constitution leaves those decisions to individuals.
Religious freedom allows everyone to believe what they choose to believe, not what the government — including public school teachers and coaches — tells them to believe. Public schools are, by definition, intended to be secular spaces separate from religious institutions. They should never encourage students to observe someone else’s religious traditions.
After learning that my daughter’s coach was praying with his team, I called the school and explained that my daughter and our family were not comfortable with this. The manager was supportive and asked the coach to stop, and she did. It was all we wanted.
Schoolchildren are already under enormous pressure to integrate. A coach should not add to this pressure by making them feel that following their religious tradition is a prerequisite for being part of the team. In the Supreme Court case, the Bremerton School District found out what was going on and offered the coach time and space for personal prayer. But the coach insisted on publicly praying with the students and sued the district.
Coaches, including the coach in this Supreme Court case, have every right to believe what they want. But students also have the right to their religious freedom, and it is the duty of public school employees to protect these rights.
Unfortunately, some people argue that what happened in cases like ours – or in Bremerton – is correct. My daughter didn’t think it was good. Me niether. Neither do many Bremerton parents and students.
The separation of church and state and the equality it guarantees are the basis of our democracy. True religious freedom protects everyone’s right to pray. But it also protects people who might not want to pray or who pray differently than you or me.
Let’s hope the Supreme Court won’t allow the religious freedom protections that have existed for generations in public schools across the country to be weakened. I might even say a prayer for it.
This column was produced for Progressive Perspectiveswhich is led by The progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.