School prayer SCOTUS ruling stirs campus debate on religion

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

Conservative and some Christian leaders praised the court’s action, saying it allows for the personal religious expression of the coach and those who voluntarily followed him to have due regard for freedom of religion and freedom of speech. But civil rights activists and many educators said that allowing a coach or other school authority to lead a prayer was tantamount to the kind of founding a religion that the constitution forbids.

“The court has opened the door to prayer in schools more than ever in the last 60 years,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, constitutional law expert and dean of the law school at UC Berkeley. “There will be a lot of litigation. And it’s not at all clear where the court will draw the line.”

A 60-year-old High Court decision banning official prayer in New York schools had set a clear line for school officials: that campus practices and policies should serve strictly secular purposes. Monday’s ruling has blurred that line and will present additional challenges for those who want more space for religious expression in schools, said John Rogers, a UCLA professor of education and an expert on training school administrators.

“One of the outcomes of this decision is that it’s likely to open up more conflict in schools,” Rogers said. “It will likely create even more challenges for school principals and other district leaders as new efforts are made to bring religion into the realm of public schools. In some school settings, religious minorities or non-religious people will experience some sense of coercion or some sense of silence or alienation.”

Monday’s decision 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 to pray after games, although the sessions soon became well-known, drawing crowds of players and spectators onto the field.

When the prayers became a public event, school officials warned the coach that they could be considered a violation of the constitution’s ban on “forming a religion.” Kennedy was suspended when he refused to follow district orders. He was not reinstated for the next year.

Lower courts ruled against Kennedy, but the conservative majority of the Supreme Court found that the coach’s prayers were protected by two other First Amendment provisions — the freedom of speech clause and the “free practice” of religion clause.

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

The court’s lawsuit sparked lively discussion on Monday in a Facebook group for parents who support teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District and are generally aligned with their union.

One parent hailed the protection of Kennedy’s rights to free speech and religion and said the coach never forced others to attend the prayer sessions. But several other parents protested, saying players and students might feel ridiculed or left out if they were in the minority not to join in the prayers.

Other parents wondered how receptive the Supreme Court would have been to the freedom arguments if the coach in question had been a Muslim who placed a prayer rug in the center panel and bowed to Allah in prayer.

“I don’t know if this Supreme Court would decide so far if it were a religion other than Christianity,” said Tracy Abbott Cook, one of the parents on the discussion group. “And why does this coach have to bring religion out into the open at this moment? Maybe people want a break from religion and politics when they go to a sporting event. . . . Why screw it up?”

Los Angeles Schools Supt. Alberto M. Carvalho said the district’s policies already make it clear that employees are allowed to pray at their own time and place. The district bans prayers, which students would feel compelled to join, Carvalho said.

“To the extent that you pray to yourself outside of the real [school] event – and you have not compelled anyone to join you in prayer – then that is within the guard rails of free speech, which you do not lose by entering a public school,” he said. “If it goes beyond that, it will still not be allowed.”

But even in the country’s second-largest school district, it seemed obvious that these guidelines are not being consistently followed.

Football coaches at three high LA Unified Schools said they are aware of rules requiring a separation of religion and school functions, though they said players would sometimes lead prayers informally, sometimes in small groups.

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

He said he refers to ‘God’ in his prayers but sees it as a universal concept and that Muslim players and coaches ‘participated in their own way’.

Carvalho said he needed to know details about Dorsey High’s prayer sessions but that they sounded “inconsistent” with district policy.

Ken Williams, a trustee for the Orange County Board of Education, applauded the court’s decision, saying that celebrating religious diversity and expressing faith is central to American identity.

“I fully understand that you cannot force anyone to pray or to believe the same things that I believe,” said Williams, a Christian. “I think that’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 in the Central Valley, board member Steven Fogg said he would support a policy change that would allow teachers and coaches to lead prayers at sporting events. The district previously only allowed students to lead prayers.

For years, the district had opened school board meetings with a prayer, a routine that was halted 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. “The prayer should not be something that arouses hostility, otherwise it is a wrong prayer. We definitely don’t want anyone to feel left out. It should be something that brings people together.”

But advocates who have argued against organized prayer on school grounds said the practice tends to become compulsive and exclusive when led by coaches and other authority figures. The Washington ACLU found that one of Kennedy’s players attended the prayer against his own beliefs for fear of losing playing time if he declined.

“This decision weighs on the separation of church and state – a fundamental principle of our democracy – and potentially harms our youth,” said Taryn Darling, lead attorney for the ACLU of Washington.

“Some parties see it as a political game that our public schools are arenas of conflict,” said UCLA’s Rogers. “And I think that comes at the expense of public schools, which need some level of shared purpose to drive our common interest in developing the skills of young people in service to the broader community.”

Monday’s decision did not overturn previous court rulings prohibiting more direct interference of religion in the curriculum and school life.

In 1962, in Engel vs. Vitale, the Supreme Court ruled that the Board of Regents of New York could not enjoin prayer on students. The court rejected the New York educators’ proposal, although they argued that their one-sentence prayer was nondenominational.

Judge Huge Black found that the mere introduction of prayer (“God Almighty, we recognize our dependence upon You and we invoke Your blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country. Amen.”) was inherent , sufficient to constitute an illegal religious establishment even if participation in prayer was not overtly coerced.

In the decades that followed, the Supreme Court rejected an Alabama statute that allowed a minute’s 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’s policy that allowed students to use a majority vote to decide whether to have a student-led “appeal” at football games, graduation ceremonies, and other school gatherings.

“The freedom of religion protected by the constitution is restricted when the state positively supports the particular religious practice of prayer,” Judge John Paul Stevens said in the 6-3 opinion overturning the school prayer schedule. Stephen Breyer is the only remaining judge to share this opinion. He will retire in the summer. School prayer SCOTUS ruling stirs campus debate on religion

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