The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to allow a high school soccer coach to pray on the field after games is expected to reopen a powerful and likely tense debate among parents, educators and others about how far religion goes. may come on public school grounds, California education and legal experts said Monday.
Conservatives and some Christian leaders praised the court’s action, saying it allowed the coach’s personal religious expression and those who voluntarily followed him a reasonable adjustment to religious and free speech. But civil libertarians and many educators said that allowing a coach or other school administrator to lead a prayer was tantamount to the kind of establishment of religion that the Constitution forbids.
“The court has opened the door for prayer in schools more than ever in the past 60 years,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law expert and dean of the UC Berkeley law faculty. “There will be a lot of litigation. And it is not at all clear where the court draws the line.”
A 60-year-old Supreme Court decision to ban official prayer in New York schools had created a clear line for school officials: That campus practices and policies should have strictly secular purposes. Monday’s ruling has blurred that line and will create additional challenges for those who want more space for religious expression in schools, said John Rogers, a professor of education at UCLA and an expert in educating school administrators.
“One of the results of this decision is that it is likely to cause more conflict in schools,” Rogers said. “It will likely present more challenges for principals and other district leaders as new efforts are made to bring religion into the space of public schools. In some school settings, religious minorities or people not affiliated with any religion will feel a sense of coercion or a 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 to kneel on the 50-yard line alone to pray after the games, although the sessions soon became widely publicized and crowds of players and spectators flocked to the field.
When the prayers became a public event, school officials warned the coach that they could be seen as violating the constitution’s ban on an “establishment of religion.” Kennedy was suspended for refusing to follow district guidelines. He was not rehired for the following year.
Lower courts ruled against Kennedy, but the conservative majority in the Supreme Court ruled that the coach’s prayers were protected by two other First Amendment provisions: the free speech clause and the “free exercise” clause.
“The Constitution and the best of our traditions advise mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and oppression, for both religious and non-religious views,” Judge Neil M. Gorsuch wrote before the 6-3 majority.
The court’s action sparked a lively discussion Monday on a Facebook group for parents who support teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District and who are generally aligned with their union.
A parent applauded Kennedy’s protection of freedom of speech and religion and said the coach never forced others to join the prayer sessions. But several other parents objected, saying players and students could feel ridiculous or left out if they were in the minority who didn’t join 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 had placed a prayer rug in the midfield and bowed to Allah in prayer.
“I don’t know if this Supreme Court… would make a decision so far if it was a religion other than Christianity,” said Tracy Abbott Cook, one of the parents in the discussion group. “And why does this coach need to bring religion to this moment in public? Maybe people want a break from religion and politics when they go to a sporting event. † † † Why screw it up?”
Los Angeles Schools Sut. Alberto M. Carvalho said district policies already make it clear that employees may pray, but in their own time and place. The district bans prayers that would make students feel compelled to participate, Carvalho said.
“To the extent that you pray alone, outside the actual [school] event – and you have not forced anyone to join you in prayer – then that is within the guardrails of free speech, which you do not lose when you enter a public school.” he said. “If it goes further, it will not continue to be allowed.”
But even in the country’s second-largest school district, it seemed clear that those guidelines weren’t being followed uniformly.
Football coaches at three LA Unified high schools said they were aware of rules requiring separation of religion and school functions, although they said players sometimes prayed informally, sometimes in small groups.
Staffon Johnson, football coach at Dorsey High, said he prays regularly before and after games. “I’m just praying for their comfort, praying for… injury free, praying for other teams so they can travel safely,” said Johnson, who said he finds the training comforting players.
He said he refers to “God” in his prayers, but considers it a universal term and that Muslim players and coaches “participated in their own way.”
Carvalho said he should know details about the prayer sessions at Dorsey High, but they sounded “inconsistent” with district policy.
Ken Williams, a trustee of the Orange County Board of Education, praised the court for its ruling, saying that the celebration of religious diversity and expressions of faith are central to American identity.
“I totally understand that you can’t force someone to pray or believe in the same things I believe in,” 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.”
At the Clovis Unified School District in Central Valley, board member Steven Fogg said he would support a change in policy to 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 halted after a 2018 federal appeals court ruled against the practice 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. “Prayer must not be something that provokes hostility, otherwise it is a false prayer. We certainly don’t want anyone to feel left out. It has to be something that brings people together.”
But lawyers who have argued against organized prayer on school grounds said the practice tends to become coercive and exclusive when led by coaches and other authority figures. Washington’s ACLU noted that one of Kennedy’s players joined the prayer against his own convictions for fear of losing playing time if he refused.
“This decision puts pressure on the separation of church and state — a core tenet of our democracy — and potentially harms our youth,” said Taryn Darling, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Washington.
“Some parties see a political game in making our public schools theaters for conflict,” UCLA’s Rogers said. “And I think that’s to the detriment of public schools, which require some level of common purpose to further our shared interest in developing the capacities of young people to serve the wider community.”
Monday’s decision did not overturn previous court rulings prohibiting more direct interference by religion in the curriculum and the school day.
In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled in Engel vs. Vitale that the Board of Regents of New York could not command students to pray. The court rejected the New York educators’ proposal, though they claimed their one-sentence prayer was non-denominational.
Judge Hugo Black found that the mere introduction of prayer (“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon You, and we implore Your blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country. Amen.”) illegal establishment of religion, even if participation in prayer was not openly enforced.
Over the following decades, the Supreme Court would overturn an Alabama law permitting a minute of prayer or meditation during the school day and forbidding prayers led by religious leaders at school graduations. In 2000, the court also overruled a Texas school board’s policy that allowed students to decide by majority vote whether they wanted a student-led “invocation” at football games, graduations, and other school gatherings.
“The religious freedom protected by the Constitution is curtailed when the state affirms the specific religious practice of prayer,” Judge John Paul Stevens said in the 6-3 Opinion Overturning the School Prayer Plan. Stephen Breyer is the only remaining judge on the court to agree with that view. He will retire this summer.