We ask too much of our public school employees.
We rely on them to spend an average of $750 of their own money on school supplies each year. We thrust them onto the frontlines of a deadly pandemic. We increasingly task them with keeping young children quiet through a school shooting, or even with serving as human shields for their tiny bodies.
We look to these teachers, coaches and administrators to at once inspire and educate the next generation while also regulating every word that comes out of their mouths (and every book on their school shelves).
Those who work at public schools make great sacrifices, and I am one of the millions of adults in this country who have benefited immensely from their selfless devotion. And during a month of high-profile Supreme Court decisions, some of which dramatically reduce the autonomy of Americans over their own lives, I’m glad that the latest one, handed down Monday morning, gives some small freedom back.
The case centers on one very passionate high school football coach who wanted to pray.
In the eyes of the majority, the coach, Joe Kennedy of Bremerton High School outside Seattle, “felt pressured to abandon his practice of saying his own quiet, on-field postgame prayer.” To the minority, he engaged in “public, communicative displays” of religion, something that he was prohibited from doing as an emissary of the state.
I’m not a legal expert. I had to Google the Lemon Test, and the Establishment Clause, and the cited decisions to remember the specifics just like you did. I found the arguments in both the majority and dissenting positions compelling.
But I can tell you exactly when my heart broke for Coach Joe, and became convinced that the court ruled correctly in its 6-3 vote.
After being asked by the Bremerton school district to stop, Kennedy voluntarily ended his practice of leading locker-room prayers with his players (a tradition that predated him) and removed any religious references from his pep talks. But he also “felt pressured to abandon his practice of saying his own quiet, on-field postgame prayer,” the majority opinion said, and that is what he just couldn’t give it up:
“Driving home after a game,” he “felt upset that he had ‘broken [his] commitment to God’ by not offering his own prayer, so he turned his car around and returned to the field. By that point, everyone had left the stadium, and he walked to the 50-yard line and knelt to say a brief prayer of thanks.”
If you’re not a religious person, you might roll your eyes at this. But as a member of a religion whose practices seem utterly bizarre to many people, I found this truly heartbreaking.
Coach Kennedy did not force his players to participate in any religious activity. He started his post-game tradition of praying on the 50-yard line of his own volition — and, importantly, as a solitary activity. Over time, players joined him. And like any high school coach, he certainly knew how to work the audience, as exhibits of him captivating the players attest.
The dissenting justices would have you believe that this demonstrates “exactly the type of vulnerability to social pressure” that exists “in the high school context.” I think it’s evidence of something else.
The most memorable parts of school are not the curriculum, but demonstrations of character. My favorite public school teachers and coaches were not the ones who acted as callous ambassadors of the state, but the ones who were themselves — the high school history teacher whose room was decorated with posters of comunistas, and who held my best friend as she sobbed about a boy who broke her heart. The debate coach who sold “contraband” candy bars during class so that he could buy proper competition attire for students who couldn’t afford it.
None of them kept their opinions to themselves. Some were religious, some avowed atheists. But all of them challenged our beliefs, and we loved them for it.
Was my history teacher responsible for my short-lived obsession with Che Guevara? Undeniably. But that’s the cost of letting teachers be themselves.
As a Jewish woman living in a majority Christian (yet increasingly irreligious) country, I bristle at any attempt for the state to impose its interpretation of morality on private citizens, as the court has done in overturning Roe v. Wade. But neither should the follow the French in preferencing secular activity, which functions is a religion unto itself.
As the majority writes, if we were to do so, “not only could schools fire teachers for praying quietly over their lunch, for wearing a yarmulke to school, or for offering a midday prayer during a break before practice,” but they would be “required to do so.”
Trying to remove the religious character of our country would be as fruitful as trying to desalinate the sea. If we want to protect the rights of all Americans to exercise their religions free of fear, we should start with not penalizing those who do so in public.