Last week, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a public high school football coach who prayed on the 50-yard line after games was constitutionally protected.
In a statement, Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represented the school district in the High Court, said the decision “represents the greatest loss of religious freedom in our country for generations”. The court, she noted, falsely described “coercive prayer as ‘personal’…preventing public schools from protecting the religious freedom of their students.”
Let’s look at 30 years of prayer in Lancaster County Public Schools.
Nearly 30 years ago, I was invited to participate in the baccalaureate at a local high school. I didn’t like the idea, but I went there at the request of a Jewish student at the school who had been bullied throughout her school years because she was the only Jewess. Despite the law that it couldn’t be a school-sponsored event, as speakers gathered before the service, the principal said something like, “We’ll continue to do this as a school-sponsored event until someone sues us. .”
In 1995, the valedictorian of another county high school respectfully requested that the graduation not include a formal prayer—again, asking only that the law be obeyed. She was harassed and threatened, and the school administration told her she could not give her scheduled farewell speech, which addressed the issue. She boycotted the ceremony. The invocation was replaced by a moment of silence, but another student – the daughter of a county judge – said a prayer after her own speech and invoked Jesus Christ.
When my son joined his high school’s wrestling team, the Mat Club (the team’s booster club) started the year off with a welcome dinner, held in the high school cafeteria. The dinner began with a prayer in the name of Jesus. When I raised concerns, I was told that the Mat Club was not a school organization and therefore not restricted by law. (If it was not an educational body, were the usual rental fees charged, if necessary?)
About a year earlier, a coach had lost his job with the team for distributing evangelistic videos. He returned the following season as a volunteer. When he invited the team to his house for dinner, my son asked if he could attend. I gave him permission and told him that he was now going to a private home and that he should honor the religion of his hosts, but that he should call me to pick him up if things got uncomfortable . There is a difference between prayer in a house and prayer in a public school.
There were student-led prayers around flag poles at local schools. Should the school allow non-school sponsored events to be advertised in the school? (Spoiler alert: it does.) Do school staff members ostensibly chaperone but not lead school-sponsored church clubs?
As for sitting on the sidelines, what about a football manager praying at the end of a football match in midfield? As more and more players join, do we really believe that there isn’t undue pressure on other players to join us? Should this be done publicly? Is there anything sacred in the 50 meter line? Is it a direct portal to God? If the coach is serious about not imposing his will on others, is God less likely to hear his prayers if he waits an hour to go home and pray privately at his bedside? I know I wouldn’t care to worship a god limited to such a narrow space and time.
However, last week in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the football coach. The case involved a school employee on public school property at the end of a school event surrounded by pupils and yet the high court did not see this as a breach of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, thereby violating my rights as a religious minority. (The decision ignored the fact that at least one parent told Bremerton school officials that their son “felt obligated to participate” in the coach’s prayer or risk losing playing time.)
The ruling on the prayer came just days after the court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, thereby violating the free exercise clause by failing to protect my rights as someone who believes that a mother’s life should come before a fetus, even if it means aborting the fetus. The court established one religion’s view of the beginning of life against another religion’s view. Please don’t try to tell me that the court is not serving the agenda of the Republican Party and its evangelical partners.
I used to drive past the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC, considering it even more sacred than the White House or the United States Capitol. I mourn this loss in my life as the court once again eviscerates the foundation of uniqueness and blessing that this country once was. Out of shame!
Jack Paskoff is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster. Email: [email protected]