(RNS) – On Monday, April 25, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a major school prayer case in which conservative justices will likely find constitutional sanction for teachers mixing public prayer with their official duties.
The plaintiff, Joe Kennedy, sued the Bremerton School District in eastern Washington state after it barred him from leading public prayers immediately after games. He rejected the accommodations offered by the district and alleges that his First Amendment rights were taken away from him.
The district argues that the prayers had a coercive, if not intentional impact, perhaps convincing the Kennedy players that taking a knee for Christ would find favor with the coach. This, district leaders feared, could have violated the Establishment Clause, the First Amendment’s ban on the government’s promotion of religion.
A decision isn’t expected until the summer, when we find out whether a high school coach can legally pray with students on the 50-yard line after football games. In the meantime, we can ask ourselves: should he?
The judges will weigh the rights of free speech and free exercise of public school employees against the rights of students of various faiths not to feel coerced into religious activities. Believers in the American religious landscape should consider whether religious beliefs are well served by public expressions in secular contexts.
This is – more than any legal reasoning – the judgment that believers are called to pass. In the exercise of freedom, one can recall the words of Saint Paul: “’Everything is permitted’, but not everything is useful. ‘Anything goes’, but not everything adds up.
Ostentatious public prayers do not edify. On the contrary, they harm serious Christian devotion. As with street corner preachers who are well within their rights but convince no one, Kennedy’s postgame public prayers were probably little more than a sideshow. The law may amply permit it, but Christianity does not require it.
In fact, Jesus warned against showy public prayers, saying in the Gospel of Matthew that hypocrites like to pray publicly “in order to be seen by men.” God’s rewards, according to Jesus, flow to those who obey his command: “When you pray, go into your room, and when you have closed your door, pray to your Father.
Perhaps then Coach Kennedy’s pastor – not his principal – should have advised him not to lead post-game prayers with children over whom he has power. These prayers were public, not private. They were planned by the teachers and not by the students.
Paul Clement, a former Solicitor General under President George W. Bush and a hero of the conservative legal establishment who helped defend Kennedy’s case in the Supreme Court, evidently believes that Kennedy’s prayers present an important constitutional issue. And it’s important to protect the right of teachers to pray throughout the day if they choose, but Clement went out of his way to champion Kennedy’s need for maximum visibility immediately after games.
Judge Sonia Sotomayor asked: “Why there?” Clement replied that Kennedy’s religious beliefs required him to pray in midfield.
This is a very weak argument.
Not only does Christ himself not require showy and potentially coercive public prayers, but he teaches against them. Kennedy’s prayers may have brought him psychological improvement, but they were not meaningful exercises in Christian faith and devotion.
Conservatives too often forget that, in their zeal to defend all Christian expression in the public square, they end up promoting a nominal and vapid Christianity. It feels good when you think you’re losing ground in the wider culture. But it falls far short of serious Christian discipleship and spiritual formation, which conservatives claim to foster.
Bremerton’s parents were obviously divided on the issue, although those opposed to the prayers were probably less likely to speak out. But they rightly have many options for the spiritual formation of their children. They can take them to church every Sunday. They can guide them in prayer and Bible reading. They can mold lives of fervent and dedicated faith.
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But if anyone thinks that a coach’s inspirational 90-second speech and prayer at 9:30 p.m. some fall Fridays is going to make teenagers good Christians, they’re terribly wrong.
I have been a strong advocate for religious liberty and I resent that Coach Kennedy was reprimanded by the school district. But with proper spiritual discernment, this could have been settled years ago in a small town 3,000 miles from the Supreme Court.
Instead, emboldened conservative judges will open the door to a more nominal cultural Christianity. It seems that in the days of former President Donald Trump and his judges, that’s all the so-called conservative Christians really want.
(Jacob Lupfer is a writer in Jacksonville, Florida. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)