A recent Supreme Court opinion upheld the right of a former high school football coach to pray on a football field after each game. Whether the Supreme Court majority was right or wrong, Jesus offered a better way to pray.
At issue was whether Joseph Kennedy, a former assistant high school football coach in the Bremerton, Washington, public school district, had the right to pray on football fields after games were over. The six conservatives said he did, since he intended his prayers to be private and personal, and therefore constitutionally protected despite the mythology that has developed around the Supreme Court’s 1962 ruling that teacher-led prayer in the public schools was unconstitutional. The three liberals on the Court said that the prayers were public and led by Kennedy in his official capacity as a football coach, i. e. as a government official, and were therefore unconstitutional since they could conceivably make his charges feel coerced in participating in religious practices from which they chose to abstain.
Much mythology and many misunderstandings have developed since the Supreme Court in 1962 ruled that teacher-led prayer in the public schools violated the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution, which says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” While the initial purpose of the First Amendment and the other nine amendments in the Bill of Rights was to limit federal power, the Supreme Court has ruled that most of the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, now limit the powers of sate and local governments as well. In 1962 the Supreme Court ruled that teacher-led prayers in public schools—i. e., those run by cities, counties, or independent school districts—constituted the “establishment of religion” by local governments and were therefore unconstitutional.
But the Supreme Court never intended to ban all prayer—only mandatory prayer led by government officials. Students have a perfect right, alone or in groups, to pray as long as they neither force others to pray nor otherwise interfere with anyone’s rights or interfere with the legitimate operations of the public schools. Teachers, administrators, and other school officials cannot force anyone to pray, but they can likewise pray in private and under circumstances in which nobody is coerced, no other rights are violated, and no operations are disrupted.
But based on anecdotes—some real, some possibly apocryphal—about overzealous school administrators misinterpreting the Supreme Court’s ruling, many believe that the Supreme Court banned religion entirely from the public schools. For example, stories have circulated that:
- Students and teachers have been prohibited from wearing religious medallions—crucifixes, stars of David, for example—on school grounds ( the American Civil Liberties Union had to go to court to protect a Jewish boy’s right to wear a star of David medallion after school officials, thinking it was a gang symbol, tried to ban it).
- Primary school students have been disciplined for publicly praying over their milk and cookies or inviting their fellow students to pray with them (when I was in the Massachusetts public schools in the 1950s I could get into deep doodoo for not praying with sufficient enthusiasm; the courts have now ruled that children’s prayers for milk and cookies are okay as long as they’re voluntary and not teacher-led);
- High school yearbooks soliciting students’ favorite quotations for publishing with their photos have been prevented from publishing Bible verses submitted by students (again, the ACLU has gone to court to protect students’ rights to share Bible quotes).
- Christian students have been prohibited from forming clubs or otherwise meeting on school grounds (the courts now say that Christians have a perfect right to meet and use school facilities for their religious activities as long as adherents of other faiths, or no faith, have an identical right).
Despite the best (and frequently successful) efforts of the ACLU, the U. S. Justice Department, and faith-based organizations, the myth that school prayer is banned remains. Those on Facebook can frequently see a manifestation of the myth in the form of a meme frequently posted on timelines following a mass shooting in a school. Somebody asks God why He didn’t intervene to stop the murders. God replies that He could not intervene because the Supreme Court had expelled Him from the schools. But the Supreme Court did no such thing, thereby creating the circumstances for ambiguities to arise, as in the Kennedy case.
Throughout the controversy and before the Supreme Court, Kennedy and his supporters argued that his after-game prayers were private and personal. Nobody else was required to participate in them. All who did participate, especially the high school football players, did so purely of their own free will. Nobody was rewarded—say, with extra playing time—for participating, and nobody who declined to participate was penalized.
The three Supreme Court liberals who rejected Kennedy’s arguments maintained that since Kennedy was a football coach and was acting in his official capacity, his actions could not help but influence his players even if he did not explicitly require their participation, reward participants, or penalize nonparticipants. Especially noted were the fears of one member of one of Kennedy’s teams, an atheist who said he felt peer pressure to participate and feared loss of playing time if he didn’t. They also noted that despite Kennedy’s claim that he intended his prayer sessions to be private, they were usually joined by football players from his teams as well as from opposing teams, and other officials and spectators. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote the dissenting opinion, included with her text a photograph of the field being swarmed by participants in Kennedy’s “private” prayer sessions.
Photographic evidence and liberals’ arguments notwithstanding, the Supreme Court ruled in Kennedy’s favor, supporting his right to continue to privately pray in public. The ruling is being celebrated by religious conservatives and denounced by more secular critics, both of whom saying God is being put back in the public schools—a false statement since, as noted above, the Supreme Court never really expelled Him in the first place.
No doubt controversy will continue as others try to test the lines between acceptable and unacceptable religious practices in public education, whether by practicing or banning religious activities or rituals. The resolution of these putative future cases will depend on the composition of the Supreme Court at the time they’re argued, and whatever decisions the Supreme Court makes may be subject to change as the Supreme Court’s composition changes as well.
But future controversies could be avoided if those who want to pray really choose to follow Jesus’s example and teaching on the subject of prayer. Luke 5:16 reports that Jesus, to avoid the crush of crowds assembled to hear him preach or heal, “often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed.”
And in Matthew 16:6, Jesus is quoted as saying, “When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” Jesus adds, in Matthew 16:8 that God “knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.” Preaching 2000 years before the Supreme Court first began tackling the issue of school prayer, Jesus neatly prescribed a course of action for the religious-minded which avoids all possible objections and questions which might otherwise be raised by those supporting or opposing prayer in the public schools. After all, Jesus knew what he was talking about, didn’t He?
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.