Stevens: The Supreme Court has another important decision to make. This time it’s about the school prayer. | Remark

The School Prayer Case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, is before the United States Supreme Court, and it could be as explosive as the court’s review of Roe v. Wade. Even though the precedent on religious freedom is well established, the current tribunal seems more likely than previous tribunals to disregard a long-established precedent.

School prayer in public schools has been held unconstitutional since Engel v. Vitale in 1962. The only reason it took until then for the court to rule this way was because, as you may know, the court did not interpret the Bill of Rights. for many years as limiting state action of any kind. Originally, it was viewed exclusively as a limitation of federal power, not of the states. But the principle that religion and politics should remain separate had been well established since the founding of the country. I would say school prayer should never have been allowed, but case law had to catch up with the Bill of Rights, so it took a while for the court to rule.

The Founding Fathers were very clear about the dangers of putting the official seal of government on a particular religion. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson both worked tirelessly to remove the state’s preference for Christianity in Virginia – to “disestablish” it – and Jefferson spoke of the need for a “separation wall” between the Church and the state. They both wrote eloquently about the dangers of allowing a religious majority to impose its beliefs on a minority. Think about it: if we happened to have a Muslim or Hindu majority in the United States, would the idea of ​​school prayers still seem appealing to so many Christians today?

As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, when the government favors a particular religion, it sends “a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and a accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, privileged members of the political community.And this message is bad for both “insiders” and “outsiders”.Non-adherents include members of minority religions as well as those who believe in no religion.They are all as American as those of the majority, and they deserve respect and freedom from the coercion of the majority.

The case in court today involves a former high school football coach named Joseph Kennedy. As a coach in a public institution, he was a government employee – a representative of state authority and power. This means that his conduct of a Christian prayer for others put the official government stamp on the prayer. Leading prayers for his team and others, he aggressively demanded that everyone recognize the dominance of Christianity.

Some see Kennedy v. Bremerton as a case defending an individual’s right to be a Christian, but that is quite wrong. Joseph Kennedy was not oppressed. He never saw his faith or his religious practice threatened. He could go to church without fear. He could pray in public at the corner of the street, at the mall, at the gas station, at the restaurant or at the grocery store. (Stores that ask employees to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” in December are simply trying to be polite to those who don’t celebrate Christmas; they’re not waging war on Christianity, and they’re not exercising power of the state.) He could even pray in his public school, as long as the prayer was his own private prayer and he was not seen as leading a prayer for students, staff, or others.

The only thing he was forbidden to do in his school was to use his official leadership position to promote sectarian prayer. One would have to adopt a well-developed victim mentality to see this as an attack on one’s religious freedom. Are these really Christians who see themselves as victims?

Our country is riddled with divisions, conflict and fear. This unease has led a growing number of people to yearn for what they believe to be a simpler and better time. They believe that the country once promoted Christianity and things were better then. Men were men. Women were women. Women followed the example of their husbands. Abortion was illegal. Schools taught traditional values. And much of that was supported by Christian prayer in the schools.

The problem is that the past they remember never really existed. They remember it as how some think they walked miles to school in the snow, uphill in both directions. It was never really like that. The good old days were not really good, especially for those who were in the minority.

School prayer seems decent and wholesome to Christians. But America is for everyone, not just the majority. Hopefully the new Supreme Court will remember that when deciding this important case.

Solomon D. Stevens earned his doctorate in political science at Boston College and taught constitutional law, American government, and political theory. He lives in North Charleston.

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