Student Opinion: Supreme Court Should Not Allow Prayer in Schools

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By Nikki Bondale

 

There are two taboo topics most people are taught to avoid in conversation: politics and religion. But what if they coincide? In my opinion, that is when the conversation becomes more important than ever.

 

When thinking about which constitutional rights Americans possess, freedoms of speech, petition, assembly and press quickly come to mind; especially in regards to modern-day protests and movements such as Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo Movement.

 

However, I find that one right that is often overlooked is freedom of religion as many Americans today believe that this right has remained the most static and unchanged compared to the others in the First Amendment. This is untrue as the current justices on the Supreme Court have made more changes to all First Amendments rights and precedent cases than any other court. 

 

A 2020 SCOTUSblog article describes how the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Roberts, is playing a metaphorical game of “doctrinal clean-up.” In general, the Supreme Court very rarely overrides their past cases with new rulings. However, under Chief Justice Roberts, the Court has done this quite a bit. The “clean-up job” is attempting to refine many Constitutional rights and rewrite previously made rulings because they were oftentimes very unclear.

 

During this clean-up, the justices have broadened the scope of what “freedom of religion” includes. However, there are still many factors left to discuss to interpret this amendment more effectively. I believe that many of the justice’s rulings on freedom of religion have been made without completely analyzing and discussing the nuances of this right. 

 

I agree with the earlier rulings that helped clarify freedom of religion and separate education from religion. The Supreme Court has heard cases regarding freedom of religion in the past such as Engel v. Vitale (1962), which ultimately outlawed prayer in public schools, and Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), in which they decided that individuals’ freedom of religion outranks states’ rules. These have since been used as landmark, precedent-setting cases, thereby ensuring that students could freely pursue their beliefs openly without being required to abide by another person’s religion or opinion.

 

Now, the court is faced with a new challenge: whether or not pre-game prayers are an establishment of religion on school grounds, or if they are private speech and thereby, constitutional. 

 

The case in question involves former football coach Joe Kennedy who believes that his freedoms of speech and religion were violated after not being rehired by the Bremerton School District in Washington State. After several school officials warned him against pre-game prayer, Kennedy continued to pray with his high school football players before games and was then not rehired the following school year.

 

The debate, in this case, is not solely about the scenario itself, but also about the constitutional question of whether to expand the freedom of religion or not. 

 

According to the Los Angeles Times, this case can go one of two ways. The Supreme Court could align with Kennedy, stating that his prayer was constitutional under his freedoms of religion and speech or the Supreme Court could rely on past precedent and state that Joe Kennedy’s actions as an employee of the school violated the students’ free exercise of religion because this prayer was establishing a school-wide religion. 

 

The Supreme Court should side with past precedent and not with Joe Kennedy. Religious practices should be left out of school settings because students, especially at younger ages, should be given the freedom and opportunity to discover their own beliefs and practice their own customs and traditions openly. Requiring them to pray before games forces them to conform to a certain religion.

 

If the Supreme Court continues on such a drastic path of doctrinal clean-up in this way, and allows pre-game prayer to fall under freedom of religion, what are the limits? How far does freedom of religion stretch? Can public schools begin having different, established religions based on whoever is in charge at the time? With little to no limits on freedom of religion, religion could also become a discriminatory factor in the hiring processes of private companies. A ruling in support of Joe Kennedy would overturn previous cases that outlawed established religions in public schools, so would religion just be allowed in school then?

 

Ruling in agreement with past precedent better aligns with the implicit meaning behind freedom of religion.

 

Rachel Laser, president and chief executive of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says this case is a good example of the First Amendment in schools.

 

It is about “protecting impressionable students who felt pressured by their coach to participate repeatedly in public prayer,” says Laser. Establishing boundaries to what freedom of religion and speech mean, especially in public schools, is necessary to protect the educational journey of children. 

 

This impending Supreme Court decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022) will clarify the boundaries around freedom of religion. The Supreme Court’s current game of “doctrinal clean-up” must come to an end with this case because it is important to side with past precedent, and continue banning the establishment of religion in public schools. 

 

The growing minds of children must be made a priority so that they are able to develop their own opinions and explore all aspects of religion without outside pressures. In order to further solidify the boundaries of this vague amendment, politics and religion should be discussed openly in public schools instead of forced upon students. 

 

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About The Author

Jordan Varney received a masters from UC Davis in Psychology and a B.S. in Computer Science from Harvey Mudd. Varney is editor in chief of the Vanguard at UC Davis.

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8 thoughts on “Student Opinion: Supreme Court Should Not Allow Prayer in Schools”

  1. Keith Olson

    It is about “protecting impressionable students who felt pressured by their coach to participate repeatedly in public prayer,” says Laser. 

    Did any of the students complain?

  2. Ron Oertel

    I’ve increasingly-realized that any belief (whether it’s classified as a religion or not) can cause conflict and ultimately – isolation when included as part of a curriculum (or if somewhat rigidly/passionately held and communicated in a classroom, for example).  And in the case of young children in particular, even more so if it conflicts with parents’ beliefs (such as politically-controversial beliefs).

    I’m seeing less-and-less difference between religious (vs. other) beliefs, in regard to that.

  3. Bill Marshall

    There is a difference between “allowing” prayer, and “compelling prayer”… football players (including high school kids) have been seriously injured, sometimes resulting in death… if anyone objects to coach and players ‘taking a knee’, and spontaneously praying, as they see fit, not required, as a teammate, or opponent are taken off the field, significantly injured, they are not fully human… opinion…

    Article is ambiguous as to whether prayer should be prohibited, if voluntary/spontaneous, or just not ‘compulsory’/regimented.

    The ‘posters’ creds are mentioned… not the author’s… big oversight for the VG policies…

    1. Don Shor

      More to the story here from when it all began in 2015:
      https://www.cbsnews.com/news/washington-state-praying-football-coach-joe-kennedy/

      SEATTLE — The coach of a Washington state high school football team who prayed at games despite orders from the school district to stop was placed on paid administrative leave after a group of self-described Satanists said it planned to attend a Thursday game to protest the practice.

      Joe Kennedy, Bremerton High School’s assistant football coach, was put on leave because he refused to comply with district directives to avoid overt religious displays on the field, Bremerton School District officials said in a statement late Wednesday.

      Kennedy has vocally prayed before and after games, sometimes joined by students, since 2008. But the practice recently came to the district’s attention, and it asked him to stop.

      He initially agreed, but then, with support from the Texas-based Liberty Institute, a religious-freedom organization, he resumed the postgame prayers, silently taking a knee for 15 to 20 seconds at midfield after shaking hands with the opposing coaches. His lawyers insist he is not leading students in prayer, just praying himself.

      The debate at the school across Puget Sound west of Seattle has focused attention on the role of religion in public schools. Dozens of lawmakers in the Congressional Prayer Caucus sent a letter this week to the superintendent expressing support for the coach.

      “While the district appreciates Kennedy’s many positive contributions to the BHS football program, and therefore regrets the necessity of this action, Kennedy’s conduct poses a genuine risk that the District will be liable for violating the federal and state constitutional rights of students or others,” the statement said.

      The district said Kennedy is still employed and will be paid through the remainder of his contract term unless his status changes. He won’t be allowed to participate in any activities related to the football program, although the district said he can attend games as a member of the public.

      Kennedy’s lawyer, Hiram Sasser, called the leave a hostile employment action.

      “It’s surprising and shocking,” Sasser said.

      He said they plan to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which he said is a next step.

      The announcement came as a group of robe-wearing, incense-spreading Satanists planned to attend Thursday’s game. Senior class president Abe Bartlett said Wednesday that he was one of a few students who invited the Satanic Temple of Seattle, saying it was an effort to get the school district to clarify its policy.

      “The main reason I did it is to portray to the school district that I think we should either have a policy that we’re not going to have any religious affiliation or public religious practices, or they should say people are going to be allowed to practice their religion publicly whatever their beliefs,” said Bartlett, 17.

      “They need to either go black or white,” he said. “I don’t think this controversial middle ground is what our school needs.”

      The Satanic Temple, which has 42 members in its Seattle chapter, suggested that by allowing the coach to continue praying, the district has created a forum for religious expression open to all groups. It requested permission to perform an invocation on the field after the game.

      “It’ll definitely be a theatrical production – robes, incense, we have a gong,” chapter head Lilith Starr said. “There are a number of students and teachers at Bremerton High who don’t feel like they’re being represented on the football field.”

      The district did not respond to a request for comment regarding the group.

      The group doesn’t believe in Satan except as “a potent symbol of rebellion against tyranny,” it says on its website. It’s an atheist group that rejects the notion of supernatural deities and espouses values such as scientific inquiry and compassion, it says.

      1. Alan Miller

        OK, maybe I take back what I said from this posting relative to what I said below.  Here it sounds like he’s NOT praying with his students.   I’m cool with silent prayer, but it says here he’s “vocally” praying.  Well, once you are vocal, you invite others to be vocal with their beliefs, and a gong.  I much appreciate the theatrics, O Satanists.

    2. Alan Miller

      The ‘posters’ creds are mentioned… not the author’s… big oversight for the VG policies…

      Much agree.  This has been pointed out before, and is ignored.  Seriously, what gives with this?  Why would anyone care about a poster’s bio for an article they didn’t write?

  4. Alan Miller

    Kennedy continued to pray with his high school football players

    The key word is with.  There’s a power dynamic problem here.  If the coach wants to go off by himself and pray in privacy, fine.  If he’s praying with students, because he’s the coach, he’s forcing his beliefs on the students and pressuring them to pray.  I don’t see a chance in héll that gets OK’d by the Supremes, doctrinal cleanup or no.

  5. Keith Olson

    he resumed the postgame prayers, silently taking a knee for 15 to 20 seconds 

    How is this much different from players and coaches taking a knee during the national anthem?

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