Prayer in Public Schools? The Supreme Court Changed Everything We Know About the Separation of Church and State

The SCOTUS decision Kennedy v. Bremerton upends established precedent and blurs the line between public and private rights to free speech and the exercise of religion in the context of public schools. Legal scholars and activists weigh in on what a post-Kennedy decision future might look like for kids, parents, and school districts. Parents and school board members brace for impact.

Prayer in Public Schools
Photo: Parents | Zoe Hansen

Amidst the torrent of hotly-contested Supreme Court decisions released in June, one case could upend everything we know about the separation of church and state in public education. In the decision's wake, constitutional law scholars, school boards, teachers, and parents are looking for answers where there are few good ones to come by.

The Case: Kennedy v. Bremerton School District

A high school football coach for a public school in Washington state was leading his athletes in a prayer in the locker room before games, as well as on the field after games. The coach was put on administrative leave by the school district for not following protocol and was not recommended to be re-hired for the following school year because of his defiance.

All courts leading up to the Supreme Court were unanimous in siding with the school district, reaffirming that public school staff are not guaranteed a right to exercise public prayer during the execution of their job duties. However, the Supreme Court vacated all those previous rulings with their own 6-3 decision. In Kennedy v. Bremerton, the justices writing for the majority declared that the coach was exercising his private first amendment right to freedom of religion by praying after the game.

The Legal Implications That Could Follow

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, J.D., professor at the Stetson University College of Law in Florida, sees the impacts of this case upending decades of established precedent. "The Supreme Court had previously sided with students and families that objected to religious prayers at school events, including graduations." While there's no crystal ball, Dr. Torres-Spelliscy feels that "this is likely to inspire more public school officials to impose their religious views on public school students during school time and during school events. Schools are going to be caught between a rock and hard place. They are likely to be sued by employees if they stop prayers, and they are likely to be sued by students and families if they let prayers continue."

Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, a veteran civil rights lawyer in Wisconsin who concentrates on school law, also sees troubling implications ahead: "I am quite confident that this coach's behavior, and probably worse, will be replicated in many schools all over the country. This puts students who do not want to pray (for whatever reason—they are not the same religion as the teacher/coach, they simply do not want to pray, or they do not believe in God) in an untenable position, with no legal option."

This Is Less About Prayer and More About Power

Rev. Tiffany Steinwert, Ph.D, a Methodist pastor and the dean of Religious & Spiritual Life at Stanford University in California, similarly highlights the problematic nature of the SCOTUS decision, but from a theological perspective. "The difficulty is that our prayers and specifically the public performance of them is drenched in the politics of power. Power between and among, over and oppressing others. When prayer becomes public it becomes enmeshed in these power differentials, no matter our intentions." She does see the prayer, as it was performed by the coach, as a theologically public, rather than private, act. "From a [Christian] theological perspective, using prayer as a weapon to enforce religious conformity is inimical to Christian understandings of belief, faith, and religious responsibility."

Parents See Problems and Opportunities for Their Kids

Ryan Myer is father of two teens in Sterling, VA. He grew up in a small town in North Carolina, where he remembers Christian religious representation "in all sports and clubs in school. I know now that is not right," he says. "I never thought about it as a kid. I really never thought about how that might be hurting other kids. I was in the majority." Thinking of what impact the SCOTUS ruling might have on his own kids, "I don't have a problem with role models expressing their faith or spirituality…. I think that is good no matter the faith. It is the whole person. I have never taught the kids that our faith is correct or the best. I taught them there are different languages and different faiths. God talks to people differently."

Samantha Taylor, mother of three from Seminole County, Florida, took her older kids out of public school for reasons unrelated to the SCOTUS ruling. However, she and her husband were adamant that schools that were religiously affiliated or endorsed religious displays were off the list of possibilities. "While I'm Jewish, I'm not religious," she says. "Prayer is not a part of our family life, and it's not a part of their school life. That's how it should be, and I'm sad that public education, which is the right of every kid, is becoming less, rather than more, inclusive."

As for her younger child, Taylor has already made the decision to move her from her public school to the same non-religious private school the girl's older brothers attend. After the state of Florida implemented a law last year requiring that every Florida school observe a minimum of one minute of silence to start the day, Taylor saw the writing on the wall. While her daughter doesn't pray during this quiet time, and no instruction is to be given from the teachers on how to use this moment, shared culture and majority Christian ideas fill in what is left unsaid: that this time is meant for prayer. "This prayer in school is just another nail in the coffin for us. I'm sad because public schools should be for everyone."

S. Nadia Hussein, a mother of two from Bloomingdale, New Jersey, serves on the Bloomingdale Board of Education. "My concerns are that a religious ideology will be pushed onto my child, either explicitly or implicitly, or that it further otherizes them—I have biracial Latino/South Asian Muslim American children—because they are not Christian or white," she says. "I fully support anyone's right to pray on their own as they wish or pray in their own house of worship or religious event. However, I do not support extending that right to the public domain, especially not in public education."

How To Help Kids Feel Safe and Less Impacted by School Prayer

Dr. Torres-Spelliscy sees that protest, which is guaranteed in the constitution, is a likely avenue for students to express their discomfort with prayer in public schools. "Students have the First Amendment right to protest coercive prayers in school under Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District where Justice Abe Fortas wrote for the Supreme Court in 1969. Moreover, students need to be given meaningful ways of not participating in prayers that do not match their own religious beliefs. Public school coaches are not the only ones with religious rights here."

Rev. Dr. Steinwert says that, should her kids encounter public prayer in their activities, "as a parent I would most definitely speak to the coach and the school. I would ask for it to stop, offer education and workshops on why it is problematic, and offer to help them create a new team ritual. I doubt that would work, so I would then demand that other prayers also be given and again offer to do those myself. I would also organize local multi-faith clergy to do a pray-in before all the games as protest. I suspect no one would change their mind or practices, but I would perhaps feel a bit better…and maybe make space for a kid who felt isolated and alone."

As for Samantha Taylor, she sees a future where her advocacy will go on—and be more necessary than ever. "I will continue like my mom did to inform decision-makers about the mistakes that they're making when they're not being inclusive," she says. "And I hope that I can bring about the change that she, too, tried to make. But thirty years later, I shouldn't have to be doing this same work. It's sad, but I won't stop standing up for what is right."

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles