Schools and Learning

At The Supreme Court, Clergy And Other Leaders Speak Out Against Coercive Prayer In Public Schools

  Rob Boston

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, a case involving a high school football coach in Bremerton, Wash., who insists he has the right to pray with players at the 50-yard-line after games.

Americans United is representing the Bremerton School District in court. AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee argued the case yesterday and did an excellent job standing up to a barrage of questions from the justices.

While Katskee fielded questions inside the court, outside Americans United and its allies rallied in support of church-state separation and the real religious freedom it gives us.

Among the participants were several clergy members from Bremerton. These faith leaders flew across an entire country to make it clear that religious exercise must always be freely chosen, never compelled or forced.

Their words are worth hearing:

The Rev. Douglas Avilesbernal, executive minister, Evergreen Association of American Baptist Churches: “Personally I would say that if we Christians feel that our country has gone down and away from morality, the last thing we should do is ask the government to fix it for us. If the blame lies somewhere, it is in our churches. The question of morality is for us, not for the government to enforce our morality or understanding of morality. And lastly, I would say, please let us not sully the sacredness of prayer by making it just another tool in our very human culture wars.”

Pastor Meg Dowling, Bremerton United Methodist Church: “As a person of faith and as a local pastor, I believe that prayer is a sacred act. Prayer should never be used to pressure, coerce, manipulate or otherwise harm any of its participants. But unfortunately, this is exactly the result of Coach Kennedy’s public prayers. When he intertwined his prayer with his post-game pep talks, he made it impossible for vulnerable students to opt out without risking their place on the team. When students could not consent to being part of this prayer, their religious liberties were violated.”

Emily Katcher, student rabbi, Beth Hatikvah Synagogue, Bremerton: “In any country where Jewish people have lived, we have a history of being the other, of being oppressed, of being told we are less than. When we come to America, where we have lived so happily and so freely, for so long we feel deep gratitude in our everyday lives for the separation of church and state, that we are free to be Jews, to pray as Jews and live as Jews as full citizens of this country, that our children go to public schools, for which we pay taxes, and are taught by teachers who will not treat them as less than. We want to maintain those freedoms not just for Jews but for any minority religion – our Muslim children, our Hindu children, our Sikh children, all of our children, our children who are Unitarians, our children who are atheists.”

Pastor Gregory Reffner, Brownsville United Methodist Church, Bremerton: “As a Christian leader and pastor, one thing I regularly teach and preach in my congregation is that Christians ought to follow the example of our God and continually examine the power and privilege that we hold and consider what it looks like to let go of that power and privilege so that our local neighborhoods might reflect the communities of love that Jesus came to establish. And while it saddens me to say this, Christians throughout our history have enjoyed authority and power in the public sphere that religious minorities and folks who do not adhere to a faith can only dream of.”

The Rev. Kathleen Kingslight, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bremerton: “The kids follow the coach’s leadership because of his power, because of his influence. And if they have a belief that’s different – perhaps in Allah or in the Jewish expression of their forefathers or in no faith at all – will those kids let go of their own faith so that they can support the coach? … Using one’s power to override the religious freedom of others is wrong. It’s against the boundaries set up by the school district in Bremerton, it rips away the boundaries of the Constitution and amendments meant to protect our religious freedom. … Let’s keep faith and government in their own lanes so that our kids can live the freedom we all so value.”

Ouida Brown, general counsel for Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) also spoke.

Brown: “I’m from Alabama, and you have to admit, we know a little bit about football. So I know what it means for a football player to play the game. If their coach prays, so will they – even if they don’t want to. They will do whatever it takes to make sure they get playing time. … But it is not OK, and it is unconstitutional for a public school to pressure students to pray with them.”

Raskin: “The Supreme Court never banned prayer in the public schools. As I like to say, as long as there are pop math quizzes, there will be prayer in public schools. Anyone can pray whenever they want to pray, but the point employees of the school and officials of the school cannot engage in prayer and try to get others to participate with them because that clearly violates the separation of church and state.”

You can watch the event, including introductory remarks by AU President and CEO Rachel Laser, on AU’s Facebook page. For more information about the argument, see AU’s Twitter feed.

For 75 years, Americans United has defended separation of church and state with strong legal arguments and by rallying people of all faiths and philosophies to stand up for this vital principle. Yesterday we took the fight to the highest court in the land. I’m proud of the work we did – and I hope you are too.

P.S. If you want to learn more about how the argument went, join AU’s post-argument briefing tonight via Zoom. You can get more details here.

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