Why All Should Care about Supreme Court Rulings on School Prayer, Religious School Funding

Greetings, newsletter subscribers:

Coach Joe Kennedy of Bremerton High leads athletes in player during a game. Photo credit: Meegan M. Reid, Associated Press

How will educators in the upcoming school year make sense of the recent Supreme Court ruling on public school prayer? As longtime First Amendment scholar Charles C. Haynes told me for my commentary for the Boston Globe Magazine, the Kennedy v. Bremerton ruling has blurred the lines separating church from state. The majority opinion said it was fine for Coach Joe Kennedy to pray at midfield right after the game ended, even though evidence presented many times over showed that Kennedy encouraged his own team – as well as the opposing team – to join him in his prayer circle. He was, in fact, proud of it. You can read more about the case and my own take here.

The ruling in the coach’s favor has raised concerns among church/state advocates that it will weaken 60 years’ worth of precedents that made it clear school representatives cannot lead students in prayer. Those same rulings made it clear that clergy and others also cannot lead students in prayer at an event, whether it’s graduation or a football game, because that too makes it seem as if a school district is promoting prayer. The court this time, though, ruled in favor of the coach, citing the free exercise clause. For religious liberty advocates, it was a tremendous victory. If you’re interested in making your own conclusions, read the majority opinion, the dissent and accompanying amicus briefs, all available online at the Supreme Court website. How, too, will the Carson v. Makin decision, which lets parents use public money to attend private religious K-12 schools, affect voucher and charter school programs around the nation?

Meanwhile, June 24 marked the 30th anniversary of the landmark Lee v. Weisman ruling, which prohibited clergy-led prayer at public school graduations. The case started at a Providence middle school, and I interviewed all four Weisman family members for a Washington Post article looking back at what they went through. The parents thought they could resolve the issue with a letter and a conversation when they complained about a pastor asking everyone to bow to Jesus at their daughter Merith’s graduation. But every step of the way, the Providence school system fought the parents’ attempt to stop the prayers, ultimately taking the case to the Supreme Court. Read my article, in the Post’s Retropolis section, here.

Also sparked by the recent rulings, I wrote a tips piece for education writers on covering church/state issues for The Grade, a blog about education reporting.

Let me know what you think of the articles. I’d like to keep the conversation going. And, if you’re attending this year’s Education Writers Association conference in Orlando, make sure you attend the Lightning Talks on Monday, July 25. I’ll be giving a talk on how to uncover clashes on church/state issues in your community.

Thanks, as always, for reading!



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