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Commentary: Supreme Court must protect religious freedom

Carl Wilmsen, Progressive Perspectives on

Published in Religious News

On April 25, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, about a public school football coach who pressured his players to pray with him at the 50-yard line. The court’s conservative majority seemed to signal support for the coach.

It’s an important case for a nation where religious freedom and the separation of church and state are being put into question. But this case is also of personal significance to my family. You see, something quite similar happened to my daughter years ago. I share her story so that other people can see for themselves why it’s wrong to impose religion on children in public schools — and in the hope that the court does the right thing and protects students’ religious freedom.

In 2005, when my daughter Amanda was in high school in California, she was on the junior varsity soccer team at our local public school. One night, she came home from a game and told my wife and me that her coach had prayed with the team. We learned that the coach had been saying Christian prayers before every game.

My daughter felt uncomfortable with this; I was shocked and upset. The idea of a public school employee leading students in prayer flew in the face of everything I knew and understood about how the Constitution protects religious freedom.

My wife and I are practicing Buddhists, but we decided not to raise our children in a religious environment. We feel strongly that our children should make decisions about religion and spirituality for themselves. That’s why we’re grateful that the Constitution leaves these decisions up to individuals.

Religious freedom allows everyone to believe what they choose to believe and not what the government — including public school teachers and coaches — tell them to believe. Public schools are, by definition, intended to be secular spaces separate from religious institutions. They should never steer students into observing someone else’s religious traditions.

After learning that my daughter’s coach was praying with her team, I called the school and explained that my daughter and our family were uncomfortable with this. The principal was supportive and asked the coach to stop, and she did. That was all we wanted.

Schoolchildren already face tremendous pressure to fit in. A coach shouldn’t add to that pressure by making them feel that following their religious tradition is a prerequisite for being part of the team. In the case before the Supreme Court, the Bremerton School District found out what was happening and offered the coach time and space for personal prayer. But the coach insisted on praying publicly with students and sued the district.

Coaches, including the coach in this Supreme Court case, have every right to believe what they want. But students have rights to their religious freedom too, and it’s the duty of public school employees to protect those rights.

 

Unfortunately, some people contend that what happened in cases like ours — or in Bremerton — is OK. My daughter didn’t think it was OK. Neither did I. Neither did many parents and students in Bremerton.

Church-state separation and the equality it guarantees are foundational to our democracy. True religious freedom protects everyone’s right to pray. But it also protects people who might not want to pray, or who pray differently than you or me.

Let’s hope that the Supreme Court does not allow the protections for religious freedom that have existed for generations in public schools across this country to be weakened. I might even say a prayer for it.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Carl Wilmsen of Albany, California, is a labor activist specializing in social justice issues in the management of U.S. public lands. This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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