Schools and Learning

Coercive Religious Worship In Public Schools: It Causes Real Harm To Real People

  Kristin Tolentino

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton was a huge blow in ensuring that religious practices don’t make their way into public schools in a way that’s coercive  – and what’s even more troubling is the knowledge that there may be more to come as Christian nationalists continue to push the envelope all over the country.

At stake are the rights of religious minorities and those who choose to be nonreligious. Journalist and author Linda Wertheimer reminds us of this in a recent Boston Globe column. Wertheimer reflected on her time in high school, being the only Jewish student in a public school in rural Van Buren, Ohio. At an assembly, her school brought in an evangelical youth pastor from a nearby church, along with their youth choir, allegedly to provide entertainment. As they sang and clapped, and with their heads bowed in prayer, Wertheimer remembers, “I sat silently, my face flushed in anger and discomfort. I wanted to flee.”

Reflecting on Kennedy v. Bremerton, she says, “This Supreme Court’s ruling prioritizes the religious freedom of teachers, coaches, and other school staff over students’ constitutional protection from educators who proselytize and orchestrate public displays of their faith regardless of their students’ beliefs.”

Wertheimer, author of the 2016 book Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance, reminds us that although some may regard these practices as one’s private religious prerogative, implicit coercion and a fear of being ostracized burdens the students.

More than 40 years after Wertheimer’s experience, too many of our country’s leaders seem to be all right with blurring the lines between church and state, even though it is explicitly unconstitutional.

It’s important to remember that as the Supreme Court chips away at the church-state wall, real people will see their rights diminished. Real people were harmed in the past. Real people will be harmed again.

Wertheimer’s column provides a stark reminder of all that’s at stake. It’s well worth some of your time.

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