Several Wisconsin advocacy groups, including some from the Jewish community, issued a joint statement to “decry” a U.S. Supreme Court decision that sided with a Seattle-area coach who led post-game prayers.
The Wisconsin organizations said the decision is a threat to the American tradition of separation of church and state. The organizations are the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation; Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope; Wisconsin Council of Churches; Wisconsin Council of Rabbis; WISDOM, a mainly faith-based network that works for racial and economic justice; and Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, an interfaith group led by Rabbi Bonnie Margulis.
In the case, a high school football coach, Joseph Kennedy, regularly engaged in public prayer before and after school football games with his students, according to a news release. The school district asked him to stop this practice in order to shield the school from liability, from a potential lawsuit from parents who might have found this practice coercive. When Kennedy refused to stop, he was suspended. He sued the school district, claiming his First Amendment rights were violated.
“The Court decided today in favor of Kennedy, thereby furthering the erosion of the separation of Church and State. In its decision, the Court found that Kennedy’s religious and free speech rights took priority over the rights of students not to be coerced into sectarian activities by school officials,” reads the statement from the Wisconsin advocacy groups.
“This decision flies in the face of a long string of precedents where the Court has found that students, by virtue of their youth and the fact that they are required to attend school, are particularly vulnerable to coercion and undue influence from school officials and therefore need special protection.”
Some national Jewish groups say the 6-3 ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton, issued June 27, could roll back church-state separations that have protected schoolchildren from religious coercion for decades.
“This is a significant change in how we approach prayer in public schools, and one that will have a negative impact in particular on students of marginalized faiths and non-religious students,” said Rachel Robbins, the chairwoman of the national Anti-Defamation League’s Civil Rights Committee. The ADL, which joined a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the school district, said it was “deeply disturbed” by the decision.
The expressions of concern came despite reassurances by Justice Neil Gorsuch that the ruling was in line with a famous 1992 Supreme Court decision in favor of a Rhode Island Jewish family who objected to clergy leading prayer at their children’s public school.
Jewish groups were not buying it.
“The Court’s see-no-evil approach to the coach’s prayer will encourage those who seek to proselytize within the public schools to do so with the Court’s blessing,” said Marc Stern, the chief legal officer of the American Jewish Committee, which had joined a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the school district.
“That is no advance for religious liberty,” Stern added.
As faith leaders, we celebrate the First Amendment right of free exercise of religion,” wrote the Wisconsin organizations. “However, we also recognize the importance of maintaining a strict separation of church and state. It is this separation that has allowed religious minorities to flourish in this country as in no other place on earth. It is this separation that guarantees that no one religious expression is favored over any other by our government, and that no one is ever forced by a government official to engage in religious activity.”
The Bremerton case centered on the activities of Kennedy, who started out by praying alone at the 50-yard line and did not call on others to join him, according to JTA. But soon after, students and others started joining Kennedy in prayer, alarming the school district. The Seattle Times reported that Kennedy “held his postgame ritual at midfield after each game for a motivational talk and prayer,” after seeing an evangelical Christian movie called “Facing the Giants,” in which “a losing team finds God and goes on to win the state championship.”
The school district proposed alternatives. This included allowing Kennedy to pray after the game, but he declined and continued to pray, to increased media attention. The school district decided not to renew his contract.
The court concluded, essentially, that by preventing a Christian high school coach from praying, the school district had violated his civil rights no less than had it forced other children to pray.
“Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance,” Gorsuch said, emphasizing that Kennedy had not explicitly urged students to join him in prayer.
“It seems clear to us that Mr. Kennedy has demonstrated that his speech was private speech, not government speech,” Gorsuch wrote. “This case looks very different from those in which this Court has found prayer involving public school students to be problematically coercive,” he said, specifically citing Lee v. Weisman.
Lee v. Weisman involved a Baptist clergyman who said at a 1986 middle school graduation ceremony in Providence, “Please rise and praise Jesus for the accomplishments of these children today.”
Merith Weisman’s parents, Vivian, the assistant executive director at the local Jewish Community Center, and Daniel, a social work professor, were unnerved, and the prayer triggered a series of events and lawsuits that culminated in the landmark 1992 case.
That decision was 5-4. Antonin Scalia, the late conservative justice whom Gorsuch replaced, said for years it was wrongly decided, and the religious right agreed. President Donald Trump named three conservative justices, and with the new balance of power, the Supreme Court has in recent months ticked off a wish list for religious conservatives, from school choice to overturning abortion rights.
Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox body, praised the Kennedy decision, at least in part, for easing religious restrictions.
But the AJC’s Stern said Gorsuch was cherry-picking quotes from the earlier decision to make his own opinion sound less far-reaching than it was.
“There’s a tendency to sanitize a practice, rip it out of its historical roots and look at it in splendid isolation, and so it [appears] not so terrible,” Stern said in an interview.
Kennedy, as an assistant coach, may not have the same power as the principal in the Rhode Island case who invited clergy, Stern said, but the coach still had coercive power over students, and it was disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
“Kids will do anything to get on a coach’s good side and get playing time,” Stern said.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the liberal minority in the dissent, made a similar point, illustrating it with a photo of students surrounding Kennedy in prayer.
“Several parents reached out to the District saying that their children had participated in Kennedy’s prayers solely to avoid separating themselves from the rest of the team,” Sotomayor wrote. “No [Bremerton High School] students appeared to pray on the field after Kennedy’s suspension.”
The Wisconsin groups said that as Americans, we look to the U.S. Supreme Court to safeguard our Constitutional rights: “In Kennedy v. Bremerton, the justices were asked to balance the rights of the coach to practice his faith and the rights of students not to be pressured to engage in religious activity by an authority figure. In this case, the Court got the balance wrong.”
The Wisconsin statement took note of the Constitution’s language prohibiting government from establishing a religion and guaranteeing the free exercise of religion. “As religious leaders who value the rich tapestry of multifaith community, honoring many beliefs and respecting those who choose none, we can only hope that subsequent Courts will restore the balance to where it should be and honor the establishment clause on equal par with the free exercise clause.”