Racial Equality

What’s At Stake At The Supreme Court: The Religious Freedom Rights Of Public School Students

  Rob Boston

Editor’s Note: Americans United staff members have been pulling together material to illustrate what’s at stake in the battle over filling Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat. We’ll be exploring these issues over the next few days. Today’s installment looks at the question of religious coercion in public schools.

Nearly 60 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that coercive forms of public school-sponsored prayer and worship, such as Bible reading, are unconstitutional.

For decades those decisions have stood undisturbed, and they’ve ensured that our public schools welcome all students, no matter what their religious or non-religious beliefs may be.

Now those time-tested rulings stand in jeopardy. The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg means that the high court may shift dramatically and begin to reexamine long-established precedent on church-state separation. The rulings dealing with the role of religion in public schools may be among them.

Despite the age of the school prayer decisions and their clear command that public schools must not sponsor devotional activity, they are not always respected. Some misguided school officials attempt to meddle in the religious lives of students – and they are backed by Christian nationalist legal groups that have been working in the courts for decades to undermine the school prayer rulings. One recent example is a case from Washington state, Kennedy v. Bremerton, where an assistant football coach is insisting he has a right to pray with players and students at the 50-yard line after games. This case in pending in a federal appeals court and could end up before the Supreme Court.

American society is more diverse on matters of religion than is has ever been. Polls show that the number of Americans who call themselves Christian has dropped below 70%. At the same time, the number of self-professed “nones,” people who say they have no particular religion, is skyrocketing. Our country is also home to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, Pagans and a host of other belief systems.

Any attempt to reintroduce school-sponsored prayer or worship, or teach religious doctrines like creationism in science classes, is bound to violate the rights of students and their families. But the Christian nationalist organizations that are determined to use the engine of the state to push their narrow version of faith onto as many impressionable children as possible don’t care. If their views prevail, our public schools could become religious battlegrounds.

The Supreme Court has not taken up a school prayer case since 2000, when it ruled that a Texas school district could not sponsor prayers before football games. Justice Ginsburg sided with students and their families who objected to having prayer imposed on them by the school. Sadly, this core constitutional protection is now on the line. 

As the only national organization dedicated exclusively to protecting religious freedom by shoring up separation of religion and government, Americans United will demand that the next Supreme Court justice be someone who understands why school-sponsored religion is a violation of the fundamental right of conscience. We would love to have your support.

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