Wed. Sep 27th, 2023

In June, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, siding with a public-school football coach who claimed a right to pray at the 50-yard-line after games. While the ruling was a blow to the separation of church and state, it wasn’t a blank check for public schools to impose prayer on students.
In Kennedy, the court went out of its way to disregard all inconvenient facts, portraying the coach’s practice as a relatively modest request to pray privately, quietly and outside the presence of students. That wasn’t true, but because the ruling rested on these factual assumptions, it is quite limited and leaves in place the core constitutional prohibition against official prayer in public schools. Several aspects of the decision limit its impact in important ways that school officials would do well to heed. 
First, in Kennedy, the court relied heavily on its understanding that no students took part in the coach’s prayers, and that students were not required or encouraged to pray. The court repeatedly noted that Kennedy delivered his prayers while his players were engaged in other activities like singing the school fight song. It follows, then, that staff-led prayers involving students still violate the Establishment Clause. It also remains impermissible for school officials to encourage or otherwise promote prayer.
Second, the court stressed that Kennedy’s prayers were private and personal — and not uttered in any official capacity. According to the court, Kennedy did not deliver his prayers as part of his official coaching duties. Rather, he prayed during his free time, when he and other staff could engage in any manner of private speech or secular activity, such as checking their phones or visiting with family in the bleachers. Thus, the ruling does not authorize school staff to deliver  prayers in their official capacities as representatives of a public school.
Finally, the court pointed out that the prayers were quiet and private, and were not broadcast over a public-address system or otherwise directed to a captive audience, unlike the school-sponsored prayers it has deemed unconstitutional in previous cases. The decision, therefore, provides no license for official prayers by coaches before games, by teachers in class, by principals during morning announcements or by administrators at school assemblies.
In sum, the Supreme Court upheld the right of a public-school employee to engage in a quiet and private act of prayer that was not endorsed by the school, fell outside the employee’s official responsibilities, did not involve or coerce students and was not imposed on a captive audience. All of these elements were critical to the decision, and staff prayers that do not share these features are unconstitutional, as they have been for 70 years.
It may well be that the Supreme Court will further erode the separation of church and state in future decisions. But, for now, public schools still have a constitutional obligation to prohibit employee prayers that exceed the boundaries delineated in Kennedy. Ignoring this duty would violate students’ fundamental right to choose which faith, if any, to follow, free from the pressure created by school-imposed prayer and religious exercise.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.


By admin

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