School prayer case could harm students’ religious freedom

It is an accepted truth in sports circles that the two most powerful words in the English language are “Coach said”. Now consider how children in Florida public schools should react when their coach says, “Let’s pray.”

This religious pressure is at the center of a case the Supreme Court will hear Monday about whether public school employees can lead our children in prayer. Before deciding whether you are for or against an agent of the state leading other people’s children in prayer, consider a few questions: Do you know the religious beliefs of the teachers and coaches at your child’s school? Would it make a difference if their prayers were Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Wiccan or Satanic? Or do you only want prayers by employees of the Christian majority school? This is precisely what is at stake.

In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, judges will uphold or overturn decades of case law that has consistently affirmed the religious freedom of students and parents. Courts at all levels have agreed that it is not for public school teachers and coaches to impose their religious beliefs on other people’s children. The religious freedom of students, not coaches, is at stake.

Teachers, coaches, administrators, counselors, office staff and even volunteers already have the right to pray while on duty and to wear jewelry or religious clothing. What believers in government service should not do is violate the religious freedoms of their constituents by using the authority of their position to pressure students to pray. It’s something we’ve seen here in Central Florida when pastors pray with students and coaches.

Proponents of employee-led prayer may argue that attendance has no effect on playing time or grades, but kids are smart. They know dissent is unpopular, especially when it comes to religion. Like their parents around the Thanksgiving dinner table, they will bow their heads, whether praying or pretending, just to avoid confrontation. Courts have agreed that the coercive effects of government-sanctioned prayer are stronger for children than for adults.

It is not the job of our government – ​​including public school officials – to decide when, where or how religious worship takes place. That’s up to families and places of worship to decide.

In the Supreme Court case, assistant football coach Joe Kennedy could have prayed privately away from the players, without any objection from the Bremerton, Wash., school district. In fact, the district has worked to accommodate precisely this kind of prayer for Kennedy. The prayers he was told to stop having were those after the game at the 50-yard line during which he also gave traditional post-game pep talks.

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Here in Central Florida, Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) recently addressed similar issues.

In 2014, OCPS was alerted to concerns at Apopka High School. In response, before the start of the football season, school board lawyers communicated concerns, and ordered the coaches to stop praying with the students. At least one local pastor was surprised to learn what he assumed was his religious freedom to pray with students when the “chaplain” and “spiritual advisor” were in fact violating students’ rights.

In 2021, Edgewater High School’s football program made the same mistake. A local pastor has been appointed as team chaplain by the trainer. Once again, OCPS lawyers sent yet another note to remind coaches, athletic directors and principals that students’ rights were being violated and that those who persisted in violating them would be subject to “disciplinary action”.

Ideally, Edgewater’s former football chaplain is now Edgewater’s special teams coach. I hope he got the memo too.

I commend Orange County Public Schools for responding quickly to these cases, as did the Bremerton School District. Both districts did the right thing. Had the facts been slightly different, Orange County Public Schools could be heading to the Supreme Court next week to defend the rights of you and your students against a disgruntled coach or pastor.

It’s easy to see why Coach Kennedy and other former team chaplains might feel unhappy. When you’re used to religious privilege, secular government probably sounds a lot like oppression.

David Williamson is co-founder of the Central Florida Free Thought Community and a board member of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.

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