Several Wisconsin advocacy groups, including some from the Jewish community, released a joint statement to ‘decry’ a U.S. Supreme Court decision that sided with a Seattle-area coach who led post-game prayers.
Wisconsin organizations said the decision is a threat to the American tradition of separation of church and state. The organizations are the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Milwaukee; Milwaukee Downtown Congregations Allied for Hope; Wisconsin Council of Churches; Wisconsin Board of Rabbis; WISDOM, a primarily faith-based network that works for racial and economic justice; and Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, an interfaith group led by Rabbi Bonnie Margulis.
In the case, a high school football coach, Joseph Kennedy, regularly engaged in public prayer before and after school football games with his students, according to a news release. The school district asked him to end this practice in order to protect the school from any responsibility, from a possible legal action on the part of parents who could have found this practice coercive. When Kennedy refused to quit, he was suspended. He sued the school district, claiming his First Amendment rights were violated.
“The Court today ruled in favor of Kennedy, furthering the erosion of the separation of church and state. In its decision, the Court found that Kennedy’s religious and free speech rights took precedence over the rights of students not to be coerced into sectarian activities by school officials,” reads the statement. statement from Wisconsin advocacy groups.
“This decision goes against a long line of precedents where the Court has found that students, because of their youth and the fact that they are required to attend school, are particularly vulnerable to coercion and to the undue influence of school officials and therefore need special protection.
Some national Jewish groups claim that the 6-3 decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton, handed down on June 27, could roll back the separations between church and state that have shielded schoolchildren from religious coercion for decades.
“This is a significant change in the way we approach prayer in public schools, and one that will have a negative impact especially on students from marginalized faiths and non-religious students,” said Rachel Robbins, president of the National Anti-Defamation League. Civil Rights Committee. The ADL, which joined a friend of the court filing on behalf of the school district, said it was “deeply troubled” by the decision.
The expressions of concern came despite Justice Neil Gorsuch’s assurances that the ruling was consistent with a famous 1992 Supreme Court ruling in favor of a Jewish family in Rhode Island that objected to clergy running the prayer at their children’s public school.
Jewish groups weren’t buying it.
“The Court’s approach sees no harm in Coach’s prayer will encourage those who seek to proselytize in public schools to do so with the Court’s blessing,” said Marc Stern, Chief Legal Officer of the American Jewish Committee, which had joined a friend of the court case on the school district side.
“This is not a breakthrough for religious freedom,” Stern added.
As religious leaders, we celebrate the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion,” the Wisconsin organizations wrote. “However, we also recognize the importance of maintaining a strict separation of church and state. It is this separation that has allowed religious minorities to flourish in this country like nowhere else on earth. It is this separation that ensures that no religious expression is favored by our government over another, and that no one is ever forced by any government official to engage in religious activity.
The Bremerton case centered on the activities of Kennedy, who began by praying alone at the 50-yard line and did not call for others to join him, according to JTA. But soon after, students and others began to join Kennedy in prayer, alarming the school district. The Seattle Times reported that Kennedy “held his post-match ritual in midfield after each match for a pep talk and prayer”, after watching an evangelical Christian film titled “Facing the Giantsin which “a losing team finds God and wins the state championship.”
The school district offered alternatives. This included allowing Kennedy to pray after the game, but he refused and continued to pray, for media attention. The school district decided not to renew his contract.
The court found, essentially, that by preventing a Christian high school coach from praying, the school district violated his civil rights just as much as it forced other children to pray.
“Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in brief personal and silent religious observance,” Gorsuch said, pointing out that Kennedy did not explicitly urge students to join him in prayer. .
“It seems clear to us that Mr. Kennedy demonstrated that his speech was a private speech, not a government speech,” Gorsuch wrote. “This case is very different from those in which this Court has found that prayer involving public school students was problematically coercive,” he said, specifically citing Lee v. Weismann.
Lee v. Weisman implicated a Baptist cleric who said at a 1986 college graduation ceremony in Providence, “Please stand up and praise Jesus for the accomplishments of these children today.”
Merith Weisman’s parents, Vivian, deputy executive director of the local Jewish community center, and Daniel, a social work teacher, were bewildered, and the prayer sparked a series of events and lawsuits that culminated in the landmark case of 1992.
This decision was 5-4. Antonin Scalia, the late conservative judge whom Gorsuch replaced, said for years it was decided badly and the religious right agreed. President Donald Trump has appointed three conservative justices, and with the new balance of powers, the Supreme Court has in recent months ticked off a wish list for religious conservatives, from school choice to overriding the right to abortion.
Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox body, hailed the Kennedy decision, at least in part, for easing religious restrictions.
But the AJC’s Stern said Gorsuch chose quotes from the earlier decision to make his own opinion seem less ambitious than it was.
“There is a tendency to sanitize a practice, to tear it from its historical roots and look at it in splendid isolation, and so it [appears] not so terrible,” Stern said in an interview.
Kennedy, as an assistant coach, may not have the same power as the principal in the Rhode Island case that invited the clergy, Stern said, but the coach still had coercive power over the students, and it was dishonest to suggest otherwise.
“Young people will do anything to be on a coach’s good side and get playing time,” Stern said.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the dissenting liberal minority, made a similar point, illustrating it with a photo of students surrounding Kennedy in prayer.
“Several parents have contacted the district saying their children attended Kennedy’s prayers only to avoid becoming separated from the rest of the team,” Sotomayor wrote. “Nope [Bremerton High School] students appeared to pray on the field after Kennedy was suspended.
The Wisconsin groups said that as Americans we look to the U.S. Supreme Court to protect our constitutional rights: Kennedy v. Bremerton, judges were asked to balance the coach’s rights to practice their faith against the students’ rights not to be coerced into engaging in religious activity by an authority figure. In this case, the Court erred in balance.
The Wisconsin statement took note of language in the Constitution prohibiting the government from establishing religion and guaranteeing the free exercise of religion. “As religious leaders who value the rich tapestry of multi-faith community, honoring many faiths and respecting those who choose none, we can only hope that subsequent courts will restore the balance to where it should be and will honor the establishment clause on an equal footing with the free exercise clause”.