The Supreme Court’s ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District is annoying and offensive on many levels, but one of the worst things about it is that it poses as a powerful defense of religious freedom when it’s nothing of the kind.
Coach Joe Kennedy is no hero of religious freedom. The Bremerton school district was more than willing to accommodate his desire for a post-game prayer. Officials offered Kennedy space where he could have prayed privately. It wasn’t good enough for him. He insisted on being on the 50-yard-line, with students, right after the game.
There’s a reason for that: Kennedy sought to make a public spectacle of his religious activity, and he clearly hoped to draw students into participating alongside him. The photos don’t lie, and they show Kennedy, surrounded by football players, students and others, holding what looks like a revival service on the field. That’s a private prayer?
Compare Kennedy’s actions to the kind of truly private, non-coercive religious expression in public schools by staff that has always been legal – a private prayer over lunch, crossing yourself before an important meeting or spending a few minutes of free time seeking solace from a religious book. None of that puts pressure on students nor was it threatened by the district’s actions.
For 60 years, the Supreme Court has been clear that public school officials simply can’t get into the business of meddling in the religious lives of the young people they teach. That violates the rights of the students and their parents or guardians.
The court’s decision to muddy those waters means we’re a less-free nation. Public school students are less free because they’re now at risk for unwanted forms of proselytism on school grounds and during school events. Their parents and guardians are less free because they have to worry about impressionable youngsters being pressured to take part in religious activity against their will. Members of non-Christian faiths and nonbelievers are less free because rulings like this push power upward into the hands of an already privileged Christian majority.
And just as we can see the photo of Kennedy surrounded by dozens in his “private prayer,” we can read the words of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch who authored the majority opinion. He anchored the opinion in a nihilism that tears down and destroys. Eloquence can’t take root in such a fetid swamp.
This is what Kennedy, his Christian nationalist allies and the court’s conservative majority have wrought. Let’s call it what it is: Christian majoritarianism. Force. Compulsion. Pressure. Control.
It’s about as far from religious freedom as you could ever imagine.