BJC: Students have the right to be free from government-sponsored prayer in public schools
BJC reacts to this morning’s U.S. Supreme Court arguments in Kennedy v. Bremerton
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 25, 2022
Media Contact: Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons / [email protected]
WASHINGTON – Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Kennedy v. Bremerton, a dispute involving a public high school coach who claims a right to pray with players and others on the football field following games.
BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty) filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the school district, focusing on the role of public school teachers in protecting the religious freedom of students. The Supreme Court is expected to release its decision by the end of June 2022.
BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman released the following statement today:
“Constitutional protections for religious liberty in public schools were on the line today. It was startling to hear the Supreme Court even consider whether public school officials can use their government position to lead religious exercises when this has been a settled question for decades.
Our Constitution protects the religious liberty of students by keeping the government from sponsoring or denigrating religion. Reaffirming this long-held precedent is important to protect religious neutrality in public schools and to protect students’ voluntary expression of religion. Families across our country must be able to trust public schools not to interfere in their personal religious choices.”
The American Jewish Committee, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the General Synod of the United Church of Christ joined BJC’s brief, which was co-authored by Professors Douglas Laycock and Christopher Lund.
BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty) is an 86-year-old religiously based organization working to defend faith freedom for all and protect the institutional separation of church and state in the historic Baptist tradition.
FROM BJC’s BRIEF:
“Petitioner’s theory would take a wrecking ball to Establishment Clause protections in public schools. This Court should reject it.”
“A religious tradition that honors martyrs who went to the lions rather than go through the motions of pretending to pray to a false god is in no position to dispute the feelings of players who refuse to feign prayer while secretly dissenting, or who unhappily join the coach’s prayer for fear of the coach’s power over playing time.”
“All [we] want Petitioner to do is pray in a way that clearly separates his private from his governmental capacity—that does not unite his government role with his private religious exercise, and that does not explicitly or implicitly invite his students to join him. He could delay the prayer at the fifty-yard line. Or kneel to pray in some secluded location near the field, or while the students are otherwise occupied, as he did for several weeks after September 18. … Or he could pray unobtrusively on the sidelines, as a Buddhist coach did … without the public display inherent in kneeling or walking to the fifty-yard line or both. In short, he need only change the time, place, or manner of his prayer to avoid influencing or coercing his students. Changing the time worked for Petitioner before, and it enables him to fulfill his religious obligations without imposing on his students. [We] would consider that a win-win.”
“His claims also rest on a false portrayal of the law as hostile toward religion in the public schools. In fact, much private religious activity occurs in and about public schools within long-established constitutional bounds. In this case, for instance, Petitioner admits that he was offered an accommodation that would allow him to pray after games away from his players. Nor is there any dispute that football players are free to pray on their own, individually or in a group. Such religious expression is common and well-established.”
“Students and teachers both have significant rights of religious free speech and free exercise, but they differ in a fundamental respect. While the role of students is typically private, teachers stand in two sets of shoes at once. Vis a vis their governmental employer, a public-school teacher is both an agent and a private person, and as a private person, endowed with rights under the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses. But vis a vis their students, a public-school teacher is the government, bound by the strictures of the Establishment Clause. Both interests must be taken seriously— these cases require courts to strike a balance between the teacher’s constitutional rights and the teacher’s constitutional obligations.”