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


The recent mandate of the United States Supreme Court will be known for overturning the nearly 50-year-old precedent granting women the right to abortion. But this is not the only case in which the court has struck down a right or legal protection that Americans have enjoyed for generations.

As a Jew, I am particularly struck by the Court’s decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton, in which a predominantly 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 can argue that Coach Joseph Kennedy’s prayer after football games was not coercive – that any player on his team could opt out of group prayer, without consequence. But anyone who played sports in high school knows that when a coach “invites” you to do something, it’s not so much an invitation as a requirement. I distinctly remember my high school lacrosse coach on the first day of practice addressing the team with this inspiring 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 would run.

The coercion is clear in this case. The record shows that at least one player – a non-Christian – participated in the post-match Christian prayers led by the coach only because he feared losing playing time if he did not. In other words, the student-athlete feared that a government employee would deprive him of educational opportunities if he did not attend a Christian prayer group.

But even if Coach Kennedy’s on-pitch Christian prayer raised questions for at least one player, can’t we still assume that other players who didn’t want to participate in the on-pitch prayer might just s ‘go ? Well not really.

Examples of intentional and unintentional religious coercion are pervasive in American culture. Take, for example, the teacher at the local public elementary school who, as part of a Hispanic Heritage Month lesson for her class, “suggested” the children (my daughter included) to sing “Feliz Navidad “. Surely there are other Jose Feliciano songs she could have chosen, but she didn’t. So when my daughter came home crying that she had been forced to sing a Christmas song at school (in September no less), I wrote to the teacher to kindly suggest that a Christmas song Christmas at public school might have been an insensitive choice. Her answer, which always shocks, is that she would also teach children about Jewish heritage, so I needn’t have worried. But I was worried. Would she ask my Jewish children to “teach” Judaism to their classmates? Or would she, a non-Jew, teach my children about their own heritage and religious culture?

While this reflects an implicit – and often unintended – anti-Semitism, far more explicit and chilling incidents are pervasive in our community. Just a few years ago, someone spray-painted a swastika on the gates of Lake Harriet High School in southwest Minneapolis, with the phrase “Kikes must die”. How do you think the Jewish kids on the soccer team in this community might feel about being offered a “choice” by a coach to participate in Christian prayer after a game?

Many non-Christians in the United States, myself included, are going through a period of intense uncertainty about our own freedoms. If that sounds like a stretch, 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 across the country, including an anti-Semitic incident last month in Saint Paul. Each of these events shakes the confidence I have in my religious freedom in America, and the court has done little to bolster what remains of confidence.

America has always been a Christian country struggling with the yearning for secular government that our founders enshrined in the Bill of Rights. The flawed effort toward religious freedom 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 determined to legislate and set precedent for their own Christian beliefs in law. As a first-year law student, my professors asked us to confront the concept of “objectivity” in law. But “objectivity” is a fiction – no one is ever free from the influence of their own beliefs. My contracts professor said it well: “Objectivity is the subjectivity of the dominant culture.” Meaning: The dominant culture claims that its perspective is “objective.” Non-Christians are left without recourse to “objective” Christian lawyers who believe that a Christian coach guiding 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. America’s promise, to people of any religion or no religion, is that we uphold a secular rule of law and that our government allows the free exercise of any religion or no religion without interference or preference.

I am increasingly convinced that powerful members of the mainstream culture believe that 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 bullying, or worse, in public spaces.

With the court’s decision in the Kennedy case, these protections have been weakened and our freedom and security threatened.

The opinions expressed in this section are the sole responsibility of the author.


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