(RNS) — Conservative Christians cheered the Supreme Court ruling last week that found the Constitution protects a high school football coach’s right to pray at the 50-yard line.
“A MASSIVE win” declared the evangelical ministry, Focus on the Family.
A “rightly determined” ruling, said the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm.
“A major victory for all Americans,” said Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.
The majority opinion, penned by Justice Neil Gorsuch, found the former football coach, Joseph Kennedy, had a constitutional right to pray after games and that the Bremerton School District in Washington state was wrong to restrict him after he refused to end the practice.
For conservative Christians, who have long criticized the separation of church and state as well the neutrality principle, it was one more in a string of resounding court victories. Many among them believe a public school teacher should be able to exercise their religion freely and openly in public, including in the classroom.
But now, some minority faith leaders who previously looked to separation of church and state as a judicial concept that can protect their equality are rethinking their positions.
“Fighting religion altogether and trying to ban it will only make things worse,” said Imam Abdullah Antepli, associate professor of the practice of public policy and interfaith relations at Duke University and Duke Divinity School. “We should own religion and claim it and claim our religious liberties.”
Antepli welcomed the ruling and said it offers an opportunity for minority faiths, such as Islam, to have a “broader conversation about the role of religion in public places and public schools and discuss what it means in a multicultural context.”
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Asma Uddin, a visiting law professor at Catholic University who is also Muslim and represents minority faiths in constitutional legal cases, agreed the Kennedy case helps the cause of religious freedom.
“The win in Kennedy is not just for Christians or evangelicals but for all religious believers (and more broadly, for public employees’ expressive rights),” Uddin wrote in an email. “A great way to counter majoritarian influence on our public schools is for minorities to speak up and utilize religious liberty protections for themselves.”
Elana Stein Hain, a Jewish educator and director of leadership education at the Shalom Hartman Institute, also wondered if the ruling might not empower minority faiths, such as Judaism.
“If you’re a religious minority, is it better to have a public space that is denuded of religion altogether, or is it better to have a public space that allows for religious liberty where you can compete in a marketplace too?” Hain told The Chicago Tribune. “Realistically, you’re not going to be the strongest voice, but maybe it’ll help you down the road for when you want to do something publicly in a religious way.”
Yet many legal scholars are concerned by the ruling and not optimistic it benefit religious minorities.
“The reality is that it’s not going to be Muslim coaches praying from the field or Jewish teachers reading from the Torah,” said Caroline Mala Corbin, professor of law at the University of Miami School of Law. “The reality is that it’s going to be Christians who take advantage of this ruling and Christianity that is introduced into schools.”
For years, the Supreme Court favored separation between church and state as a way of enforcing a secular order in which the government does not privilege one religion over another but instead maintains neutrality. To many minority faiths and people of no faith, that separation was the mechanism to ensure religious freedom and freedom from religion.
This separation was understood to be rooted in the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which prohibits the government from “establishing” a religion.
Now many secularism experts worry that with government neutrality sidelined, the playing field will no longer be even.
“If an agent of the state can pressure students into a religious ritual, then those students do not have religious freedom,” said Andrew Seidel, vice president of strategic communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
There’s a power differential at play, said Corbin, noting that Christianity is not only more dominant in U.S. society, it is also a faith that unlike Judaism, for example, seeks to convert everyone else.
Seidel agreed. “This decision is going to embolden adults to see our public schools as a mission field,” he said.
The details in the Kennedy v. Bremerton case were hotly contested, with Gorsuch claiming the coach “offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied.” In her dissent, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor presented a different set of facts — including a photo of the coach with players surrounding him bowed in prayer. “The record before us,” she wrote, “tells a different story.”
With the Supreme Court now dominated by six conservative Christian justices, scholars now wonder whether minority faiths will be able to get a fair shake for their religious liberty claims.
Jacques Berlinerblau, an expert on secularism at Georgetown University, said it that might be arduous.
“These cases don’t exist in a vacuum,” Berlinerblau said. “They exist in a vast, well-funded conservative Christian network that works to get the cases in a certain order and a certain way to the Supreme Court. It doesn’t just happen.”
Kennedy was represented by the First Liberty Institute, a Plano, Texas-based firm that calls itself “the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious liberty for all Americans.” This term, the institute also successfully represented two Maine families who had challenged the state’s tuition-assistance program. The court ruled that Maine must fund religious education at private religious schools.
First Liberty also successfully argued a 2019 case in which the court allowed a 40-foot cross honoring soldiers who died in World War I to remain on state property in suburban Maryland.
But Uddin said the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Muslims. In 2020 it agreed unanimously that three Muslim men who say they were put on the “no fly” list after they refused to become FBI informants can sue the FBI agents who put them there for money damages.
She acknowledged there were real concerns about minority religious believers feeling pressured or coerced to participate in religious exercises by public school teachers or coaches of a different faith.
But she concluded: “I think Kennedy is also an opening for religious minorities — both teachers and students — to feel more comfortable expressing themselves in public school settings.”
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