Editor’s Note: This week, “The Wall of Separation” is highlighting the essays written by the winners of Americans United’s 2022 Student Essay Contest. Today we’re featuring an essay by the second-place winner, Ira Sharma, a student athlete from Memphis, who has seen church-state violations in school firsthand and wrote about the impact of the Kennedy v. Bremerton decision.
By Ira Sharma
I’ve attended three schools throughout my life: all 3 are “inner city” public schools in Memphis, Tennessee. All of my schools have had incredible diversity. I grew up with kids of all races, socioeconomic backgrounds, immigration statuses, and religions.
This multiplicity has enriched my life deeply; it has never been unusual for me to hear Spanish at school or see someone wearing a hijab. I’ve been fortunate to make friends who’d recently immigrated to the United States and others who’ve never left Tennessee. The differences in how we see our identity has stood out to me – some students value their church, mosque, temple, or synagogue as the cornerstone of themselves. Others spend more time playing a sport, creating art or music. Regardless, each individual has a unique notion about religion and the role it plays in their lives – from nothing to everything.
However, I’ve noted some religious affiliations promoted and accepted at school, while others weren’t. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a student club for Christian student-athletes, has long held one of the largest memberships for a club at my school and always has overwhelming support and participation from teachers and coaches. Youth group leaders from a large local church often came to our lunch periods and socialized with students. Before track meets, my coaches have always asked everyone to gather in a circle and pray, reciting the Lord’s prayer, hands joined.
What struck me was our administration’s proud advertisement of our school as having “a diverse student body,” while not celebrating that diversity. Despite being conscious of the beliefs of the student body, no opposition has ever been raised by school officials to these activities. I’ve never been particularly religious, but I was raised in a Hindu household, so the Lord’s prayer is foreign to me. As a student athlete, I’m excited to run after school every day, but I don’t have the urge to join FCA and hear sermons before school. Youth group leaders, perhaps well-intentioned, made many students uncomfortable and had no real reason to be recruiting for their church at school.
Beyond my personal objections, these actions are unconstitutional: The Equal Access Act mandates that school employees can only attend (but never participate in) religious student clubs. These clubs must be student-initiated and run. Students are free to express their religion by praying at school or school events, but coaches are strictly forbidden from leading prayer or praying with students. A guidance on religious activity in public schools published by the federal government says, ”When acting in their official capacities as representatives of the State, teachers, school administrators, and other school employees are prohibited by the First Amendment from encouraging or discouraging prayer, and from actively participating in such activity with students.”
While I’ve only observed this firsthand at my schools in Tennessee, this gradual morphing of public schools and religion is apparent across the country. Take the recent Supreme Court case, Kennedy v. Bremerton: Joe Kennedy was a football coach at a high school in Bremerton School District, Washington. Since he began coaching, after each game, he would pray at the 50-yard line. Students started joining in, and he would lead them in prayer. Students of Bremerton School District follow many faiths, including Christianity. Kennedy invited coaches of other teams to join.
The school district, recognizing the subtle pressure on athletes to join the post-game prayer, asked the coach to stop praying after games. He was later placed on administrative leave for this reason. A media firestorm followed, with politicians chiming in, and he appeared on numerous talk shows and news channels. Kennedy’s legal team sued the school district with claims that the school district infringed on his constitutional right to offer a “private” prayer. The Court of Appeals for the 9th District ruled in favor of the school district. The case later went to the Supreme Court, where the justices ruled in favor of the coach.
Kennedy’s actions are no different from many across the country. While my track coach never explicitly told me I didn’t have to pray with the team, why would I not? The entire team joined together, and I felt I had to; I’ve always noticed other non-Christian athletes awkwardly standing in the circle. In Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent on Kennedy v. Bremerton, she cites that the District Court, “found that players had reported ’feeling compelled to join Kennedy in prayer to stay connected with the team or ensure playing time,’ and that the ‘slow accumulation of players joining Kennedy suggests exactly the type of vulnerability to social pressure that makes the Establishment Clause vital in the high school context.’”
The Establishment Clause, part of the First Amendment, prohibits the government from “establishing” a religion. While the exact definition of what “establishing” means is debated, in the legal context, for decades the court said that all government activities must pass the Lemon test. With the Lemon test, government actions are only constitutional if they: “(1) have a secular purpose; (2) have a predominantly secular effect; and (3) do not foster “excessive entanglement” between government and religion.” The Supreme Court’s ruling on Kennedy v. Bremerton turns the Lemon test upside down: not only did Coach Kennedy assist religion in a non-secular manner, he also promoted religion, and entangled the school’s reputation with prayer after games.
The high court overturned the Lemon Test last year in a fundamental shift away from the essential rights enshrined in our Constitution. If the government does not have to abide by the Lemon Test, it can associate itself with a religion, force citizens to engage in religion, and can work in pursuit of religious ideals rather than the betterment of society. Religious minorities and non-religious people must be protected under the separation of church and state to make sure all Americans have an equal chance to live their truth and have their voices heard. A government without this basis of liberty can never accurately address social ills or progress toward a truly egalitarian future.