As Constitutional issues come and go, school prayer, I must admit, is not one that animates me much. Honestly, one can always pretend to be praying even if you’re not, and in any case, when I was in school I had to endure the nonsense of a daily “Pledge of Allegiance,” which states:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”Pledge of Allegiance
First, as most people know, “under God” was added in 1954, as a response to the red scare. We’re not a nation under God.
Second, whether the nation is indivisible will be a question for the coming generation. Not so sure on the outcome of that.
Finally and most profoundly, “with liberty and justice for all?” You’d have to be from another planet to believe that is true for today’s United States of America.
Regardless, even as an atheist, I don’t think school prayer is a particularly compelling issue. That being said, the Supreme Court’s decision yesterday in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District proves, once again, that the Supreme Court is no longer in touch with reality.
So, this case involves a high school football coach in Washington state named Joseph Kennedy — not to be confused with the patriarch of the Kennedy clan — who was in the habit of going to the 50 yard line after football games to pray.
Doesn’t this guy have a home?
Doesn’t this guy go to church?
Why does he have to pray at the 50 year line?
While this started as a “quiet” and “personal” habit, it soon turned into a 3-ring circus. First, some of his players joined. Then some of the opposing team’s players joined. Then it became big enough to come to the attention of the school district, who asked him to keep it quiet and personal, and not do it at the 50 yard line. At first he complied, but then he lawyered up and decided to fight this completely reasonable request.
By the time of the homecoming game, it became a massive media event, with coverage from local TV news, and hundreds of people mobbing the field in a show of support for the coach.
At that point it was no longer private or personal in any sense. It was clearly a public demand to let the coach engage in Christian prayer as part of a school event.
As some of you might remember from your high school civics classes, the First Amendment contains two clauses that are sometimes at odds with each other: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.
- The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from establishing or promoting religion.
- The Free Exercise Clause prohibits the government from restricting the free exercise of religion.
The interaction between these clauses can get awkward, especially in relation to the religious rights of public employees.
Now, one of the reasons that the courts have historically been very careful about these clauses in the public school context is that public school students are (1) especially vulnerable to coercion, and (2) mandated to be in school. And, in fact, the record in this case shows that a number of the kids felt like they had to go pray at the 50 yard line because they did not want to lose favor with the coach.
How do we know this?
Because they told their parents, that’s how!
And yet, despite all of this, Neil Gorsuch — who authored the opinion — blithely ignores the danger of this coercion, pinning his reasoning on the fact that no one was formally required to come and pray.
C’mon Justice Gorsuch, try to stay in touch with reality.
If it were me when I was in high school, I would have just gone to the 50 yard line and pretended to pray. But I was always sure in my beliefs, or my lack of beliefs. For those who are not so certain, this is definitely coercive.