I did not expect to be stunned by the Supreme Court decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton, the case decided in favor of the praying football coach at a public high school. I’m a religious person, a scholar of religion, and very comfortable with diverse forms of religious expression. I support rituals of civil religion, from “God bless America” in a grand presidential speech to brief prayers at my small town’s Memorial Day ceremony. Besides, having taught the previous school-prayer cases many times in my college courses, I thought I knew how this one would go. I was wrong. A public-school employee can now legally pray with students, on school property, during a school event. The Establishment clause of the First Amendment has been critically weakened.
The details of the case are widely available, though some aspects of the coach’s post-game prayers and speeches are in dispute. What is known for certain is that coach Joseph A. Kennedy had a tradition of praying with his football team in the locker room before games and giving post-game motivational talks that included religious expressions and prayer. At some point this resulted in a team huddle at the fifty-yard line, students kneeling around Kennedy while he prayed, addressing both his God and his team. After conflict in 2015 with the Bremerton, Washington, school district, he briefly discontinued the behavior. But then he returned to it and claimed that he would attempt to pray privately (though he believed it needed to be on the field after the game). This became a media circus, which included politicians and students from opposing teams joining the coach in prayer on the field. Ultimately, the coach was put on paid administrative leave.
After Kennedy sued, both the District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the school district. But the Supreme Court granted certiorari, using the case as a means to strengthen the Free Exercise clause and weaken the Establishment clause. According to Douglas Laycock, a leading scholar of the First Amendment’s religion clauses, this ruling “appears to repudiate the very idea of government neutrality as a constitutional norm. Government is now free to promote religion, and apparently free to promote Christianity in particular, at least in the public schools and possibly much more broadly.”
As a parent, I’m annoyed. Teachers have substantial power over children. Coaches and other extracurricular leaders—choir and theater directors, club sponsors—often have even more influence, with little oversight. Parental authority recedes during children’s teenage years, as influence from peers and other adults increases. I absolutely do not want a teacher or a coach to exert religious influence over my kids in public schools. If a parent has the right to know what happens in social-studies class, do we not also have the right to know what prayers school officials are saying in front of our kids?