The Freedom From Religion Foundation is tutoring each and every school district in over a dozen states not to violate student rights by misinterpreting 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 contends in a memo it has sent to more than 6,100 school districts in 14 states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.
“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 memo. “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 memo. “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.”
The memo concludes by emphasizing: “While the Bremerton decision focused entirely on the rights of the coach and ignored the rights of students to be free from religious proselytizing and indoctrination in public schools, you should strive to create an inclusive and welcoming environment for all students regardless of their religious or nonreligious beliefs.” It also points out that demographic trends suggest as many as half of high school students are not religious.
The memo to school districts in the Sunshine State was also signed by FFRF’s Florida chapter, the Central Florida Freethought Community.
The multistate memo is part of a national drive to make students aware of their continuing right to be free from religious coercion in public schools that kicked off at the site of the eponymously infamous case in the state of Washington with a billboard message: “Wishing Bremerton High School a safe, secular & successful school year.”
The campaign includes an online “Know Your Rights” resource webpage and brochure for students. The online resource encourages students to report Establishment Clause violations to FFRF here. (FFRF’s website also offers a handy wallet-sized card for students to print out and carry with them.) When necessary, FFRF will be contacting student athletes directly to let them know their rights, too, as it has done with student athletes in Swain High School, N.C.
“Theocratically minded groups and people are attempting to take advantage of the egregious Supreme Court judgment,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We’re doing all that we can to make certain that student rights are respected.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 38,000 members and several chapters all over the United States of America. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.