Does Prayer Have Any Place in Public Schools?

In the landmark case Engel v. Vitale in 1962, the Supreme Court ruled that school-sponsored prayer in public schools violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment — breaching the constitutional wall of separation between church and state.

Do you think prayer has any place in public, state-financed schools? Why or why not?

On April 25, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Joseph Kennedy, a football coach at a public high school in Washington State, who was told by the school board that he could no longer offer prayers on the 50-yard line after games .

In “Coach’s Prayers Prompt Supreme Court Test of Religious Freedom,” published before the arguments before the Supreme Court, Adam Liptak writes about the case and its potential implications for society:

BREMERTON, Wash. — Joseph Kennedy, who used to be an assistant coach for a high school football team near Seattle, pointed to the spot on the 50-yard line where he would take a knee and offer prayers after games.

He was wearing a Bremerton Knights jacket and squinting in the drizzling morning rain, and he repeated a promise he had made to God when he became a coach.

“I will give you the glory after every game, win or lose,” he said, adding that the setting mattered: “It just made sense to do it on the field of battle.”

Coaching was his calling, he said. But after the school board in Bremerton, Wash., told him to stop mixing football and faith on the field, he left the job and sued, with lower courts rejecting his argument that the board had violated his First Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case on Monday, and there is good reason to think that its newly expanded conservative majority will not only rule in Mr. Kennedy’s favor but also make a major statement about the role religion may play in public life. The court’s decision, expected by June, could revise earlier understandings about when prayer is permitted in public schools, the rights of government employees and what counts as pressuring students to participate in religious activities.

The two sides offer starkly different accounts of what happened and what is at stake. To hear Mr. Kennedy tell it, he sought only to offer a brief, silent and solitary prayer little different from saying grace before a meal in the school cafeteria. From the school board’s perspective, the public nature of his prayers and his stature as a leader and role model meant that students felt forced to participate, whatever their religion and whether they wanted to or not.

The community in Bremerton appeared to be largely sympathetic to Mr. Kennedy, who is gregarious, playful and popular. But the school board’s Supreme Court brief suggested that some residents opposed to prayer on the football field may have hesitated to speak out given the strong feelings the issue has produced.

“District administrators received threats and hate mail,” the brief said. “Strangers confronted and screamed obscenities at the head coach, who feared for his safety.”

Rachel Laser, the president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represents the school board, said, “What we’re focused on is the religious freedom of students.”

“Going to the 50-yard line directly after the game when you’re the coach, with the students assuming they’re supposed to gather with the coach, and praying at that time puts pressure on kids to join,” she said.

Mr. Liptak provides some constitutional background on prayer in public school:

Over the last 60 years, the Supreme Court has rejected prayer in public schools, at least when it was officially required or part of a formal ceremony like a high school graduation. As recently as 2000, the court ruled that organized prayers led by students at high school football games violated the First Amendment’s prohibition of government establishment of religion.

“The delivery of a pregame prayer has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.

Mr. Kennedy’s lawyers said those school prayer precedents were not relevant because they involved government speech. Rather, they said, the core question in Mr. Kennedy’s case is whether government employees give up their rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion at the workplace.

The school district, its lawyers responded, was entitled to require Mr. Kennedy to stop praying as he had. “Regardless of whether Kennedy’s very public speech was official, the district could regulate it,” the school district’s Supreme Court brief said. “His prayer practice wrested control from the district over the district’s own events, interfered with students’ religious freedom and subjected the district to substantial litigation risks.”

The sweep of the Supreme Court’s decision may turn on which side’s characterization of the facts it accepts. But even a modest ruling in Mr. Kennedy’s favor, saying that his private, solitary prayer was protected even if it took place in public and at least tacitly invited students to participate, would represent a sea change in the court’s approach to the role religion may play in public schools.

students, read the entire articlethen tell us:

  • Does prayer have any place in school? Why or why not? How do you think we should navigate the tension between individuals’ First Amendment right to freely exercise their religious beliefs and the separation between church and state? How do your own religious views shape your opinion?

  • What is your reaction to the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, which is now before the Supreme Court? What do you see as the most important facts in the case?

  • Do you think the Bremerton School District violated Mr. Kennedy’s First Amendment rights? Or was the board entitled to require that its employees refrain from public prayer if students were likely to feel coerced into participating? Which arguments presented in the article did you find the most persuasive? Which less so? Why?

  • How would you rule if you were one of the nine Supreme Court justices? How do you think they will rule? What impact do you think the ruling will have on the role of religion in public schools?

  • What questions do you have about the case or the constitutional law around it?

For more information and resources on the question of prayer in public schools, see ProCon.orgthe mission of which is to “promote civility, critical thinking, education and informed citizenship by presenting the pro and con arguments to debatable issues in a straightforward, nonpartisan, freely accessible way.”

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