Religious freedom is a core American value. The First Amendment grants us the freedom to believe as we choose, with respect for the autonomy of others to do the same. For decades, the Supreme Court has upheld this right in our schools – both by protecting students’ religious freedom and preventing the use of public funds for religious activities. But recent changes to the court have presented an opportunity for the Religious Right to overturn decades of settled law.
In New Case, Students’ Religious Freedom is at Stake
On Friday, January 14, 2022, the Supreme Court announced that they will hear Kennedy v. Bremerton School District later this spring. In this case, students repeatedly felt pressured by their football coach to participate in public prayer. After the coach refused accommodations that would allow for his religious practice while protecting students’ religious freedom, Bremerton school district placed the coach on administrative leave. From the very beginning, Interfaith Alliance supported the school district’s decision, joining an amicus brief at the 9th circuit level.
Public schools should be open and welcoming to all students, regardless of background or belief, and it is up to teachers and staff to set the tone. Coach Kennedy took advantage of his position to push his own religious practices on players and their families. We ask the court to side with Bremerton school district to protect the rights, safety, and well-being of all students now and for the future.
Publicly Funded Schools Should Not Sponsor Prayer
Religious freedom is one of several fundamental rights outlined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It includes two complementary protections – the Free Exercise and Establishment Clause. The Free Exercise Clause protects our ability to follow the religious tradition of our choice, or no religion at all, without facing discrimination or punishment. The Establishment Clause protects the boundary between religion and government. It prevents the government from codifying religious beliefs into law, favoring religion over non-religion, or giving special treatment to adherents of one faith and not others.
Our public schools are a public good, funded by taxpayers and open to students of all backgrounds and experiences. Because public schools are government-run institutions, the Court has consistently prohibited school-sponsored or school-organized prayer. These rulings are in line with the Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from endorsing religion or preferring religion over nonreligion.
Teachers of course bring their personal faith practices with them during the school day. But as government employees, they are not allowed to express those beliefs in a way that pressures students to participate in religious activities. Allowing them to do so would violate the Establishment Clause and fly in the face of Supreme Court precedent.
The Courts Must Protect Students and the First Amendment
No student should ever be made to feel excluded—whether in the classroom or on the football field—because they don’t share the religious beliefs of their coaches, teachers, or fellow students. It is our hope that the court will protect the religious freedom rights of students by respecting long-standing precedent.
Learn more about Interfaith Alliance’s efforts to strengthen public schools.