The Freedom From Religion Foundation and its Florida chapter are enlightening all Florida school districts about student rights to be free from religion in the wake of a troubling Supreme Court decision.
In June, the Supreme Court released its opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District upholding the right of a public school coach to offer a private, personal prayer after the conclusion of a school-sponsored athletic event. It is critical to understand that the scope of this ruling is exceedingly narrow, FFRF and its chapter contend.
“This decision does not give carte blanche to public school employees, including coaches, to engage in religious activity with their players or other subordinates, nor does it allow school districts to impose prayer on all students, parents, and community members gathered for school-sponsored events,” notes the joint letter from FFRF and the Central Florida Freethought Community. “Public schools have a constitutional obligation not to coerce students into participating in religious rituals like prayer. The Bremerton decision simply affirms that school officials may pray privately during times when they are not acting in their official capacity as district representatives.”
The court decision specifically highlighted this important distinction. It also reaffirmed that school-sponsored prayer is constitutionally impermissible, explicitly distinguishing the private prayers of the coach in Bremerton from coercive, school-sponsored prayer, such as coach-led prayer with student participation and prayers broadcast over the loudspeaker before athletic events.
“The Bremerton decision has not changed the law at all regarding what school districts can and cannot do at its athletic events,” states the letter. “It certainly has not opened the door for public school officials to coerce students into participating in religious activities by scheduling prayer at school-sponsored events, leading students in prayer, or inviting students to participate in prayer. Please consider reminding your administrators, athletic directors, coaches, and staff of the important line between permissible, private religious expression and coercive religious practices, and monitor school athletic events to ensure that school employees are complying with the law.”
“While the Bremerton decision focused entirely on the rights of the coach and ignored the rights of public school students to be free from religious proselytizing and indoctrination, we hope you would strive to create an inclusive and welcoming environment for all students regardless of their religious perspective,” the letter concludes by emphasizing.
The joint letter also points out that demographic trends suggest that as many as half of high school students are not religious. The “Nones” (atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular”) are today the largest single group by religious identification, now comprising almost a third of adult Americans, with Gen Z’ers even less religious.
“The Bremerton ruling has created a lot of misunderstanding,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It’s our duty as secular groups to inform schools about the constitutional boundaries they must still stay within.”
Central Florida Freethought Community Director David Williamson agrees.
“We hope this outreach reminds Florida school boards of their obligation to protect the religious rights of students who do feel pressured to participate when coaches lead prayers or invite local pastors to do so,” he says.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 38,000 members, including more than 1,800 members in Florida. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.
The Central Florida Freethought Community is a Florida-based nonprofit organization focused on building a thriving secular community. CFFC, as a chapter of FFRF, actively supports the separation between religion and government as the best means to guarantee equal treatment for all Floridians regardless of religious belief.