Perspective: The reckless misrepresentation of the school prayer case
To exaggerate what the Supreme Court has done in Kennedy v. Bremerton invites the very dangers that many of us fear
Over the past week, far too many commentators, scholars and social media–meme creators have claimed that the Supreme Court is now allowing public school teachers and staff to lead students in prayer. The claim is causing a predictable meltdown.
There is only one problem: The decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District did no such thing, and schoolchildren across the country will pay a hefty price for these overstated reactions.
The case involved a high school football coach who felt compelled to pray by himself on the 50-yard line after games. Joe Kennedy had done so without incident for many years. It was a duty he felt he owed to God, and Kennedy was entitled to exercise his religion that way, as would any public employee of any religion, including Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Sikhs, Jews, Latter-day Saints — no exceptions.
In fact, it is an important constitutional principle that neither teachers nor students shed their constitutional rights when they step on school property, and that includes the right to practice their religion. Indeed, allowing teachers of a variety of religious traditions —including atheists and agnostics — to live out their religion as they see fit, without imposing it on students, is a wonderful way of preparing students for living in a religiously diverse world.
In Kennedy’s case, however, students eventually asked to join him. As they did, his prayers evolved into speeches laden with religion, into Kennedy inviting players from both teams to join him, and even into his leading the athletes in prayers. He also inherited a practice of leading the team in prayer in the locker room before games. All of that behavior violates the Supreme Court’s previous decisions on school prayer.
The school district called him out and asked him to stop for fear he was violating the Constitution. The controversy became far more public than it should have, but he agreed to stop leading athletes in prayer, relented on giving the religious speeches and promised not to invite any students or other coaches to join him in prayer. He did, however, ask for the right to go back to offering brief, quiet prayers by himself on the 50-yard line after each game.
The school district refused, not out of obstinance or spite, but from fear that allowing a coach even that much religious exercise would violate the Constitution. The parties could not come to an agreement, and eventually the case descended to litigation, where the coach again asked only for the right to offer brief, quiet prayers at the 50-yard line by himself.
That was the relief the Supreme Court granted him. His earlier behavior involving students — which would have clearly violated the Constitution — was not part of the case.
The Supreme Court did not overrule its many other cases that forbade things like mandatory student prayer, teachers reading the Bible in front of students, coercing students to pledge to a religion other than their own or forcing students to sit through official prayers as captive audiences. Those decisions are still in place. In fact, the justices explained clearly why this case was different from all those previous ones — why they were allowing this behavior even though they had forbade everything I just listed.
Some believe even allowing Kennedy to pray by himself will put too much pressure on students to join. Others believe we cannot separate what the coach was asking for in the case from his prior behavior so he still should have lost, whether he abandoned that prior behavior or not. A third group fears the court’s reasoning in the case will open the door to real violations in the future. I ultimately disagree with those positions, but I respect them and find them within the realm of reasonableness. They are all part of the discourse that should follow a Supreme Court decision.
But there is another group of commentators (including the dissenting justices) who are making the case seem so much more than it is by claiming the court overruled all its previous caselaw and allowed school officials to lead students in prayer. They are basing their statements on the behavior the coach rightly gave up before litigating the case.
These criticisms and caricatures of the case are putting schoolchildren across the country at risk by emboldening the very actors the court’s caselaw stops.
The prohibitions on public school teachers and staff leading students in prayer or forcing religion on students are in place for important reasons. They protect everyone, often without our realizing it. As soon as we allow public employees to lead youth in prayer, we immediately must confront the question of whose prayers those will be. As the Supreme Court said nearly 80 years ago: “As governmental pressure toward unity becomes greater, so strife becomes more bitter as to whose unity it shall be.” In other words, when public schools can be used to force any religion on students, that is when the fighting begins over whose religion it will be.
We must not be naïve. We live in a country in which some people have no qualms with using public schools to force their religions on others (and it is not just Christians). If those people believe the court has now opened that door, they will attempt to rush through it. For religious minorities, that can be devastating. (I should note: in this country, who is a religious minority in any given school depends very much on where one lives.)
It is incredibly hard to challenge practices like these once they gain ground, especially for a minority group in a given community. Students will face immense pressure to conform to others’ religious beliefs. Parents will be afraid to expose their children to punishment or derision, or to challenge teachers and administrators who hold their kids’ futures in their hands. Instead, they will just endure, often with great heartache.
By making claims that the court has somehow changed all its doctrine, commentators are emboldening those officials who would use schools to impose their religion on others. Just in the few short days since the Kennedy decision, we have already seen some wanting to do just that, based largely on the false narrative being spread about the case.
The Supreme Court did not allow that, and we must not either. In this time of knee-jerk, over-the-top reactions to everything, we would all do well to slow down and examine all the facts of any given situation before stating bold conclusions all over the internet. It is especially important for those with a voice — reporters, opinion writers, media personalities, scholars — to be careful with their words. I understand many are frustrated with the Supreme Court right now. Others are intentionally hoping to undermine its credibility. Still others are simply worried that the Kennedy case may be extended to allow all the things the Supreme Court has long forbidden.
But to exaggerate or misrepresent what the Court has done is to invite the very dangers many of us fear.
Steven T. Collis is an author and law professor at the University of Texas—Austin School of Law, where he specializes in law and religion. His most recent book, Praying with the Enemy, was released this month.