Student rights sacrificed to protect coach's prayer
Lost amid the outcry that rightly surrounded the Supreme Court's decision to eliminate the constitutional right to abortion established by Roe v. Wade, another recent ruling likewise illustrated the conservative majority's disregard for precedent and its selective interpretation of constitutional protections.
While the reversal of Roe in the Dobbs v. Jackson's Women Health Organization case has the much greater implications for causing societal upheaval, the consequences of the high court's decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District are significant. It diminishes student protections from religious coercion and invites headaches for school boards.
The Supreme Court's 6-3 ruling in Kennedy — with once again the conservative justices in the majority and the three liberal members in dissent — found that the free speech rights of high school football coach Joseph Kennedy were violated when the Bremerton school board suspended him for refusing to end his midfield, post-game prayer sessions.
In so ruling, the majority ignored a series of precedents established over decades that had recognized such public religious actions, carried out by or sanctioned by those in authority, are inherently coercive. Want to stay in the coach's good graces? Hope to get a letter of support when seeking that college athletic scholarship? Perhaps it is best to take a knee alongside Coach Kennedy no matter what you truly believe.
School officials had told the coach he could say any prayer, pre- or post-game, that he wanted, but not in a way that involved students. The was not good enough for the coach.
The First Amendment to the Constitution states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The intent is clear. The amendment seeks to keep government out of the business of saying how or whether people should worship. It does this by prohibiting government both from telling people who they should worship or telling them they cannot.
In other words, keep the state out of religion.
In protecting this ideal of separation of church and state, the Supreme Court recognized in a series of precedents that preventing "establishment of religion" extends beyond actual legislation. When someone in influence, such as a football coach, leads a public prayer he is establishing, intentionally or not, what the standard for students should be.
"Students look up to their teachers and coaches as role models and seek their approval. Students also depend on this approval for tangible benefits. Players recognize that gaining the coach's approval may pay dividends small and large, from extra playing time to a stronger letter of recommendation to additional support in college athletic recruiting," stated Justice Sonia Sotomayor in well explaining why such religious displays can be coercive.
Unlike her conservative colleagues, Sotomayor and the two justices joining her dissent did not turn a blind eye to a 2000 ruling that was exactly on point. "The delivery of a pregame prayer has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship," the court ruled in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.
School boards better brace themselves for what comes next.
What if a teacher likes to begin or end her day in the classroom with Buddhist meditation? Students don't have to participate, of course, but they are welcomed. It might seem cool, though parents of different religious inclinations might disagree.
What if a Jewish kid, or an agnostic, or the child of atheists tells school administrators that the teacher's "personal" praise-Jesus prayer at the end of every class makes him or her uncomfortable?
"Sorry, kid, the Supremes say the teacher has his free-speech rights," will come the answer. "We're sure that you running for the door, while the Christian kids sit respectfully, won't reflect in your grades."
Coach Kennedy, who seems to welcome all the attention, might think about these words attributed to Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Matthew: "When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men... But when you pray, go into your inner room, shut your door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."
The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.