Commentary

The Supreme Court set a dangerous precedent on coercive Christian prayers in school

July 6, 2022 6:00 am

The author writes, "With the court’s ruling in Kennedy, protections have been weakened and our freedom and safety threatened." Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent term will be known for having overturned the nearly 50-year precedent granting women the right to an abortion. But that’s not the only case in which the court rescinded a right or legal protection enjoyed by Americans for generations. 

As a Jew, I am particularly struck by the Court’s decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton, in which a majority Christian court determined that the Constitution permits a government employee — in this case a high school football coach — to engage in coercive religious activity at school. 

Those who support the court’s decision may contend that Coach Joseph Kennedy’s prayer after football games was not coercive – that any player on his team could opt out of the group prayer, free from consequence. But anyone who played high school sports knows that when a coach “invites” you to do something, it’s not so much an invitation as a requirement. I distinctly recall my high school lacrosse coach on the first day of practice addressing the team with this inspirational charge: “This team is not a democracy — it’s a dictatorship. Now run.” Dictators don’t invite their subjects to participate — they order action. We ran.

Coercion is clear in this case. The record shows that at least one player — a non-Christian — participated in the post-game, coach-led Christian prayers only because he feared losing playing time if he did not. Put another way, the student athlete feared a government employee would deprive him of educational opportunities if the student did not participate in a Christian prayer group. 

But even if Coach Kennedy’s on-field Christian prayer raised questions for at least one player, can’t we still assume other players who didn’t want to participate in on-field prayer could merely walk away? Well, not really. 

Examples of intended and unintended religious coercion are ever-present in American culture. Take, for example, the local public elementary school teacher who — as part of a lesson about Hispanic Heritage Month for her class — “suggested” the kids (my daughter included) sing “Feliz Navidad.” Surely there are other Jose Feliciano songs that she could have chosen, but she didn’t. So, when my daughter came home crying that she was forced to sing a Christmas song at school (in September no less), I wrote the teacher to gently suggest that a Christmas song in public school may have been an insensitive choice. Her response, which still shocks, is that she would be teaching the kids about Jewish heritage too, and so I had nothing to worry about. But I did worry. Would she be asking my Jewish children to “teach” their classmates about Judaism? Or would she, a non-Jew, be teaching my kids about their own heritage and religious culture? 

While this reflects implicit — and often unintentional — anti-Semitism, far more explicit and frightening incidents are pervasive in our community. Just a couple of years ago, someone spray painted a swastika on the doors of Lake Harriet Upper School in SW Minneapolis, along with the phrase, “Kikes must die.” How do you think the Jewish kids on the football team in that community might feel about the “choice” offered by a coach to participate in Christian prayer after a game?

Many non-Christians in the United States, myself included, are experiencing a period of intense uncertainty about our own freedoms. If this seems overwrought, I urge you to look at the skyrocketing levels of hate-inspired incidents across the country. Since 2020, the ADL has identified more than 16,400 incidents of hate and extremism nationwide, including an anti-Semitic incident just last month in Saint Paul. Each of these events chips away at the confidence I have in my religious freedom in America, and the court has done little to buttress what confidence remains.

America has always been a Christian country grappling with the aspiration for secular government our Founders enshrined in the Bill of Rights. The imperfect striving toward religious liberty has made America a haven for people of all faiths. Yet today, nearly 250 years after our founding, religious freedom is under attack by politicians and a court intent on legislating and setting as precedent their own Christian beliefs into law. As a first-year law student, my instructors asked us to confront the concept of “objectivity” in the law. But “objectivity” is a fiction — no person is ever free from the influence of their own beliefs. My contracts professor put it best: “Objectivity is dominant culture subjectivity.” Meaning: The dominant culture pretends that its perspective is “objective.” Non-Christians are left without recourse to “objective” Christian jurists who believe that a Christian coach leading students in Christian prayer is objectively harmless.

As our country increasingly legislates Christianity into many facets of public life, I feel a duty to push back, as an American, as a Jew, and as a parent. The promise of America, for people of any or no religion, is that we abide by a secular rule of law and that our government permits the free exercise of any or no religion without interference or preference. 

I am increasingly convinced that powerful members of the dominant culture believe the public practice of Christianity is “objectively” aligned with the Constitution.  For those of us who are not observers of the majority religion in the United States — Christianity — the Bill of Rights has protected us and our children from being bullied, or worse, in public spaces. 

With the court’s ruling in Kennedy, those protections have been weakened and our freedom and safety threatened.

The views expressed in this column are the author’s alone.

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Ben Petok
Ben Petok

Ben Petok spent nearly 15 years working at the intersection of politics and law. He currently sits on the Midwest Associate Board of the Anti-Defamation League.

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