One day, when I was still in high school, the principal announced a surprise assembly. The guest of honor turned out to be an evangelical Christian pastor from a nearby church, and the entertainment was his church’s youth band. It essentially became a church service in my public school auditorium. The pastor asked us to bow our heads and pray to Jesus. Most of my peers sang and clapped, some cheered. The band’s lead singer was a student at our school. I sat silently, my face flushed in anger and discomfort. I wanted to flee. I was the only Jew at my school in Van Buren, a rural Ohio town of fewer than 500 people.
That memory — still smarting 40 years later — was front of mind when I read the Supreme Court decision on June 27 in favor of Joseph Kennedy, football coach of a Washington state public high school, affirming his right to pray at midfield right after a game ended.
The First Amendment both prohibits public school officials from promoting religion and protects individuals’ rights to free exercise of religion. Yet this Supreme Court’s ruling prioritizes the religious freedom of teachers, coaches, and other school staff over students’ constitutional protection from educators who proselytize and orchestrate public displays of their own faith regardless of their students’ beliefs.
My family did nothing about that religious assembly, though by constitutional rights, we could have. We were afraid of reprisals. For at least 60 years, however, other families have fought those fights and won. Since Engel v. Vitale in 1962, the Supreme Court has upheld the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause regarding prayer in public schools and specifically prohibited acts such as having school-organized prayer or Bible verse recitation; students praying over loudspeakers at sporting events; and public prayer at graduation ceremonies.
Last month was the 30th anniversary of the Lee v. Weisman ruling, which prohibited clergy-led prayer at public school graduations. The case involved Providence parents Vivian and Daniel Weisman, who tried to stop graduation prayers before their daughter’s middle school commencement ceremony. In the 1992 majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that prayer exercises in elementary and secondary schools “carry a particular risk of indirect coercion.”
The ruling favoring Coach Kennedy in the recent case, though, may have damaged decades of precedents. “Now the lines are blurry,” Charles C. Haynes, a senior fellow at the Religious Freedom Center in the Washington, D.C., area, told me. “To what extent are teachers allowed to practice their faith in the presence of students? Is that private speech or proselytizing? The court does not say.” Haynes has worked for 30 years with organizations across the political spectrum to develop broad consensus on how to handle religion in public schools under the First Amendment.
Religious traditions in public schools often continue until someone complains. The latest ruling will make practices that are common in some regions — such as coaches huddling players together for a prayer before a game — harder to prevent. Between 2017 and 2021, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit based in Madison, Wisconsin, which advocates for separation of church and state, sent 100 letters of complaint on behalf of families nationwide about graduation prayer that had occurred at their children’s public schools. (One involved Canton High School in 2018.)
Justice Neil Gorsuch, in the majority opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, depicted the coach as someone who “knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet prayer of thanks” and did not directly pressure players to join him. Gorsuch concluded that this was a case about the right of free exercise of religion, and the school district discriminated against the coach by suspending, then ending his employment after he refused to stop the midfield prayers.
Yet, as Haynes noted, calling Kennedy’s post-game prayer “private speech” ignores the coach’s years-long practice of leading students in prayer. The ruling also discounts the concept of indirect coercion established in the graduation prayer case.
Coach Kennedy’s own words contradict the idea that his act was private. Last year, during a podcast interview with the leader of a national movement of Christian men, Kennedy bragged about the growth of his prayer circle at midfield over eight years. At first, he prayed alone. Then, he recounted, a few students said, “We’re Christians, can we join you?” He went on to boast: “Before I knew it, we had the whole team out there.”
In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argues that the case was so clear-cut it should’ve never made it to the Supreme Court, given the court had agreed long ago that praying led by school officials was “constitutionally impermissible.” She noted that the Bremerton area is home to Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, several Christian denominations, and the religiously unaffiliated. She wrote at length about the pressure some players felt to participate.
She also included photos. In one picture, Kennedy, standing, holds aloft a player’s helmet as athletes from his team and the opposing team surround him. Nearly all kneel, except for one teen standing at the back of the prayer circle. Which students, I wonder, want to be there? Who joined rather than risk ridicule? Several parents, Sotomayor wrote, contacted the school system “saying that their children had participated in Kennedy’s prayers solely to avoid separating themselves from the rest of the team.” They felt social pressure.
I know that pressure. It was the reason I stood at my high school graduation when a pastor asked us to pray to Jesus. It was the reason I tried to laugh it off when peers told me I was going to hell because I did not believe in Jesus. It was the reason I stayed in that religious assembly. I felt trapped.
Linda K. Wertheimer, a Boston-area journalist and former Globe education editor, is the author of Faith Ed: Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.