Supreme Court allows Coercive Prayer in Public Schools

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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 public schools – both by protecting students’ religious freedom and preventing the use of public funds for religious activities.

On Monday, June 28, 2022, the Supreme Court held in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District that a public school must allow a football coach to pray on the 50-yard line immediately after games, upending decades of precedent that protected the religious freedom of public school students. This blow to true religious freedom comes amid other losses at the court which mark a troubling new era for religious freedom.

New Decision Upholds Pressure to Pray

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. 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. Coach Kennedy took advantage of his position to push his own religious practices on players and their families. 

Interfaith Alliance has long warned of the dangers of allowing coercive prayer in public schools. In April, Interfaith Alliance filed an amicus brief in support of Bremerton School District alongside a broad-based coalition of religious organizations. After the Court released its decision, Interfaith Alliance came out in strong opposition to this ruling which dismantles religious freedom for students. 

A Troubling New Era for Religious Freedom

In its decision, the Court also jettisoned the Lemon v. Kurzmann test, which has been used for decades to identify violations of the Establishment Clause, instead appealing to “history and tradition.” It remains unclear what this new standard will mean for recent gains in civil and human rights, but what is clear is that overruling the Lemon test will expand the possibilities for government entanglement with religion – in schools and elsewhere.

The Court’s decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton opens the door for teachers and coaches to impose their religious beliefs on students under the guise of conducting “personal, private” religious activity. This decision comes amid other devastating losses for religious freedom. In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court abolished the constitutional right to abortion. In Carson v. Makin, the Court forced taxpayers to fund religious education. These decisions further fuel efforts to push the Religious Right’s radical agenda in Congress and state legislatures across the country. 

The Continued Fight for Religious Freedom

Religious freedom is a foundational American principle that ensures all people are free to believe as they choose without fear of discrimination or government coercion. Despite these losses at the court, we must continue to fight against efforts to undermine true religious freedom on the national, state, and local level. By working together across differences, we can push the needle toward freedom and build a more just, equitable future for all. 

Learn more about Interfaith Alliance’s efforts to strengthen public schools.