The Debate Over School Prayer

The U.S. Supreme Court is evaluating the place of prayer in public schools.

The high court heard oral arguments Monday in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, a case involving a high school football coach who was put on leave for praying on the 50-yard line after games.

There is debate over whether this act was private religious expression (protected), or if Kennedy was leading a service that some players interpreted as required (not). “No one doubts that public school employees can have quiet prayers by themselves at work even if students can see,” said the school district’s lawyer Richard Katskee. “But that wasn’t good enough for Mr. Kennedy. He insisted on audible prayers at the 50-yard line with students. He announced in the press that those prayers are how he helps these kids be better people.”

This isn’t just about football prayer. Depending on which facts the Justices buy, this case could change the regulation of prayer in public schools. There has already been mention of the Lemon test, from the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman. In that case, SCOTUS created a test for church-state separation that conservatives don’t like. Kennedy’s case could throw the Lemon away.

Religious expression is a First Amendment right in the U.S., but when it becomes less personal and more public, it can become coercion, violating others’ First Amendment rights. An atheist student thought he might lose playing time if he didn’t join Kennedy’s prayer. That doesn’t sound like private religious expression to me.

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