(RNS) – Conservative Christians applauded the Supreme Court’s ruling last week that the Constitution protects a high school football coach’s right to pray at the 50-yard line.
“A MASSIVE victory,” said the evangelical ministry, Focus on the Family.
A “justly determined” decision, said the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“A major victory for all Americans,” said Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.
The majority opinion, written by Judge Neil Gorsuch, found that 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 it after refusing to end the practice.
For conservative Christians, who have long criticized the separation of church and state and the principle of neutrality, this was yet another victory in a string of resounding court victories. Many of them believe that a public school teacher should be able to practice their religion freely and openly in public, including in the classroom.
But now some minority religious leaders who previously viewed the separation of church and state as a judicial concept that could protect their equality are rethinking their positions.
“Combating religion completely and trying to ban it will only make things worse,” said Imam Abdullah Antepli, associate professor of public policy practice and interfaith relations at Duke University and Duke Divinity School. . “We should own religion and claim it and claim our religious freedoms.”
Antepli welcomed the decision and said it offered minority faiths, such as Islam, an opportunity to have a “broader conversation about the role of religion in public places and public schools and to 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 that the Kennedy case helps the cause of religious freedom.
“Victory at Kennedy is not just for Christians or Evangelicals but for all religious believers (and more broadly, for the speech rights of public employees),” Uddin wrote in an email. “A great way to counter majority influence on our public schools is for minorities to speak out and use religious freedom protections for themselves.”
Elana Stein Hain, a Jewish educator and director of leadership training at the Shalom Hartman Institute, also wondered if the decision might strengthen minority religions, such as Judaism.
“If you’re a religious minority, is it better to have a public space that’s totally devoid of religion, or is it better to have a public space that allows for religious freedom where you can also compete in a marketplace?” Hain told the Chicago Tribune. “You’re actually not going to be the loudest voice, but maybe that will help you down the road when you want to do something publicly in a religious way.”
Still, many legal scholars are concerned about the ruling and aren’t optimistic about its benefit to religious minorities.
“The reality is that it won’t be Muslim coaches praying on the field or Jewish teachers reading Torah,” said Caroline Mala Corbin, a law professor at the University of Miami School of Law. “The reality is that it will be Christians who will benefit from this decision and from Christianity being introduced into schools.”
For years, the Supreme Court has favored separation between church and state as a way to enforce a secular order in which the government does not favor one religion over another, but instead maintains neutrality. For many minority faiths and non-denominationals, this separation was the mechanism for ensuring religious freedom and freedom from religion.
This separation was supposed to be rooted in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from “establishing” a religion.
Today, many secularism experts fear that with government neutrality sidelined, the level playing field will no longer be level.
“If an agent of the state can pressure students to participate in a religious ritual, then those students don’t have freedom of religion,” said Andrew Seidel, vice president of strategic communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
There’s a power differential at play, Corbin said, noting that Christianity is not only more dominant in American society, it’s also a faith that, unlike Judaism, for example, seeks to convert everyone. world.
Seidel agreed. “This decision will encourage adults to see our public schools as a mission field,” he said.
The details of Kennedy v. Bremerton were hotly contested, with Gorsuch saying 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 around him bowing in prayer. “The case before us,” she wrote, “tells a different story.”
With the Supreme Court now dominated by six conservative Christian justices, academics are now questioning whether minority faiths will be able to get fair treatment for their religious freedom claims.
Jacques Berlinerblau, a secularism expert at Georgetown University, said it could be difficult.
“These cases don’t exist in a vacuum,” Berlinerblau said. “They exist in a large, well-funded conservative Christian network that tries to get cases in a certain order and in a certain way to the Supreme Court. This does not happen by chance.
Kennedy was represented by the First Liberty Institute, a Plano, Texas-based company that bills itself as “the nation’s largest legal organization dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom 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 in 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 ruled in favor of Muslims. In 2020, it unanimously agreed that three Muslim men who say they were put on the ‘no-fly’ list after refusing to become FBI informants can sue the FBI agents who put them there for damages.
She acknowledged that there are real concerns that minority religious believers feel pressured or coerced into participating in religious exercises by public school teachers or coaches of a different religion.
But she concluded, “I think Kennedy is also an opening for religious minorities — both teachers and students — to feel more comfortable speaking out in public schools.”
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