On June 27, 2022, the Republican activist on the Supreme Court of the United States (The SCOTUS-6) ruled that a high school football coach in Bremerton, Wash., had a constitutional right to pray on the field’s 50-yard line with his team at the end of the game. And, of course, the bulk of the news media reporting on this ruling has wrongly focused on the: “religious rights of the particular coach employee” (And full disclosure, the coach and I share the same religious tradition).
K-12 public educators are partly at fault for this distorted news media perspective because we, with a strong and influential political nudge from teacher’s unions, have focused public schooling satisfaction objectives primarily on adults rather than on the needs of children.
And so, as a former high school principal and superintendent, let me try to explain why any classroom, locker room, playing field, etc., prayer led by a public school adult employee is a problem. Now, this is less about the religious rights of the adult employee in question or even the efficacy of prayer in schools (my unofficial advice to students is that you not only pray hard but that you also study hard); really, the conversation should focus on protecting the religious rights, or the choice of no religious affiliation rights, and the emotional and physical safety of students.
Minor students being in a situation (any school-related activity) where they are not under the religious protection of their parents, should not be purposely placed in a position where they are forced to confront and/or defend their religious beliefs with an adult authority figure. When it comes to the minds-in-developmental young person, many powerful adult subtle and overt influences are at work, including unspoken directives. The impressionability and imprinting factors can be very compellingly influential for young people. We have a lot of influencing power over our students, which is why our words and behaviors are so important—they are learning, not just in classrooms, but by observing us!
We cannot underestimate adult educators’ role-modeling, emulating, and influencing power. Including those of us professional educators who do embrace a particular religious tradition, we should be cautious to not overtly or subtly impose our religious beliefs on the psychologically vulnerable and highly influencing susceptible children under our care; or, in any parent interactions, or in the case of supervisors, the people we supervise.
The actions of the SCOTUS-6 not only endanger the religious decision rights of children, but they also place the religious rights or a right to no religious affiliation of any subordinate or supervisee of the prayer leader, at risk. What happens to that assistant coach who does not want to pray or pray in that particular (Christian) way. School employees should not feel that religion could be a hiring, retention-reappointment, or promotion criteria. In imperfect institutions like school systems, the fear of retribution, loss of employment, promotion opportunities, etc. because of a religious belief is real; it’s not just the codification of justice (which could be ignored), it’s also the perception of fairness, which is just as important as fairness itself.
And even if a student (or assistant coach) shared (in this case) the Christian faith tradition of the coach in question, they could justifiably and theologically believe that praying about an outcome of a high school football game was human-centric presumptuous, and an inappropriately and condescendingly disrespectful take on God’s interventionist priorities.
The entire prayer in school question should focus on the religious freedom and physical and emotional safety of children; and secondly, the freedom of religious (or no religious) choice of all school employees. We have already established as a nation that “rights” are not absolute. My right to possess a driver’s license, purchase, and eventually drive a car does not mean I have a right to drive drunk. As a society, we have wisely created a hierarchy-of-rights, that says my fellow citizens have a ‘higher right’ to live and be protected from the possible harm caused by my drunken driving. Functioning as a school administrator for any considerable amount of time could mean that, at some point, you will be forced to make that most difficult (but necessary) of calls to the Child Protection Agency in your jurisdiction; and that’s because society, again wisely, has determined that parental rights are not absolute and cannot extend to the place where children are physically, emotionally or educationally being harmed or neglected.
What could go wrong with a school employee-led prayer; how about a lot of things!
Let’s take this particular coach’s case and place it into the contextual reality of everyday public schooling and the adolescent psychological worldview. Let us also imagine that with the best of intentions, this coach gave the most beautiful and sincere pre-prayer locker room speech about religious freedom, including the freedom to not practice a religion and the right to not participate specifically in the 50-yard line post-game prayer. It would not be unusual or a stretch of the imagination for professional educators to see that non-christian or no-religion child feeling a sad sense of outsiderness, isolation, separateness, and being a disconnected part of the class, club, group, or team; and they will most likely suffer these moments in silence; even if at the end of the coach’s pre-game ‘disclaimer speech’ he asked the group: “Does anybody have any questions or concerns about the post-game prayer?” –Silence! (And how many times principals have you warned teachers in post-lesson observation conferences about the student learning assessment ineffectiveness of asking the class the question: “Does anybody have any questions?” )
Our political society already creates enough harmful and painful ‘othering’ experiences for too many of our citizens; therefore, schools should consciously engage in the opposite behaviors of welcoming and inclusionary practices. Students should never be purposely placed in a situation that will cause them to suffer the pain of feeling excluded and isolated; this approach (even to cater to the legitimate interest of adults) must never be part of our emotional learning objectives.
We (public schools) are very much a part of society, but we need not mimic every societal bad habit!
Schools are greatly influenced by negative external political and societal factors. We off-set those often deleterious belief systems to better care for and protect children. For example, we have officially established the compassionate practice of opening our doors to all children regardless of their (or their parent’s) legal emigration status. We say: “The failure of our nation’s political leaders to design and implement a reasonable and moral immigration and border management policy/plan is not our problem to solve –Our problem to solve is to effectively educate all children, without prejudice, who reside in our school community!” Indeed, public schools are very much in the world, but unlike the SCOTUS-6, we don’t need to copy the worst practices of the world.
Teenagers are people who, like adult people in this world, will act in their age-appropriate way, a lot like the people in this world!
I love high schoolers and spent much of my fulfilling professional life working with them. But this experience also informs me that in this type of case, the teenagers involved, being who they are psychologically, could very well, outside of the presence of that praying coach, and despite his real or contrived tolerance disclaimer speech, in a cliquish way, move to isolate and socially-exclude any refusing to pray students. They could also very well verbally tease, badger, or worse, physically abuse those students who chose to not join in the prayer for whatever reason: “What you don’t believe in God?” — “What, you don’t believe in Jesus Christ?” — “Are you a devil worshiper?” What often works in the adult world does not necessarily translate perfectly in the adolescent world. I don’t want to remember those moments as a superintendent when a situation deteriorated-escalated to the point of reaching my desk. And a clueless school administrator said: “I don’t understand what happened; they shook hands and hugged?” –Yeah, right!
Hopefully, school administrators, you have read Piaget’s classic: The Moral Judgement of the Child, so you know that a single, not so simple word like “respect” could have vastly different cultural-linguistic meanings for adults and adolescents.
And for those who are outside of public schools, you might unknowingly or casually say something like: “Well, that non-Christian believing or the non-praying student should just toughen up and get over it!” But for those of us who know schools and spent many years teaching and observing young people, we might say: “If only it was that simple!”
In so many ways, students will bring many of the societal ‘bad habit virtues’ into the school environment; even as we make great strides in trying to teach compassion, comity, tolerance, and peaceful solutions to problems and differences; alas, our efforts are not always 100% successful. Professional educators also know that students will often suffer silently until they explode. Also, teenage is the age when the response to that common parental question “how was your day in school?” could very likely elicit the most informationally deficient response possible: “fine” or “ok” when in fact, these young people could be living in tremendous emotional turmoil about a school incident or situation. Further, we have learned from many painfully violent experiences that students won’t always make the best response to acts of psychological or physical teasing-bullying.
In almost every case of a negative (sometimes involving weapons) response to emotional or physical teasing or an abusive bullying situation, there was always a misplaced and mistaken expectation on the part of some adult (parent, coach, teacher, or school administrator) that the young people involved in a conflictual event, could handle the situation “like adults.” Unfortunately, the misunderstanding of developmental psychology, the dereliction, and the abdication of proper adult oversight, often leads to a bad ending, often horribly and fatally affecting students and adult school employees who were not even involved with the original teasing-bullying incident.
(Just asking students to “act like adults” could be a terribly inadequate solution. Have you ever seen an adult rally/counter-rally around a religious issue that got out of hand and descended into verbal and/or physical violence? –I rest my case).
I’ve had too many principal and superintendent disciplinary conferences to believe that, especially on a ‘cut-to-the-core’ topic like religion, that teenagers are always going to act in a sensitive, sensible, and rational way with the different beliefs or no beliefs of their fellow school mates. Why this unrealistic expectation that young people (living in a confrontationally inclined society outside of schools) will naturally work out this religious ‘tolerance thing’ is unreasonable to me. Particularly when on too many occasions in my school and district administrator’s capacity, I’ve had to employ mediation techniques for the peaceful resolution of “battling” parents, supervisors vs. supervisee disputes, and adult peer vs. peer school employee conflicts! And yes, even principal vs. principal disputes — “He ‘stole’ one of my best teachers!” Historically, religion has had powerful built-in catalytic elements for producing troubling conflicts. So why invite this problematic and controversial topic into PreK-12 public school systems?
K-12 schools should be the safest emotional and physical places in a world filled with religious tensions, strife, conflicts, and violence. This means that we professional adults who work in schools must be the most tolerant and have the greatest amount of understanding and sensitive appreciation for the different cultures, ethnicities, and, yes, religious (and no religious) profiles of our students.
Children should not be forced to feel that they are disappointing or betraying an adult school figure they generally respect and like (sorry, adult readers, but that’s how they will see it). These same children should not be subjected to emotional or physical teasing or bullying because of their religious (or no religious) beliefs. And to be painfully blunt, perhaps we should focus more of our public education energy on doing a better job for all children in the area of academic performance and leave the area of religious training, beliefs (or no religious beliefs), and practices to the students and their families.
And then there is this argument: “We are a “Christian nation,” and so the rest of you’ll non-Christians just have to deal with it!” Putting aside the fact that the 1700s was not the social-political era when any “founding father” (e.g., Thomas Jefferson) wanted to openly express their lack of enthusiasm for Christianity or portray any type of questioning of religion, agnostic or atheistic beliefs; we should not confuse majority ruling traditions with the sacred principle of no state-mandated religion.
But this “We are a nation built solely on Christian values” concept is also based on an intellectually lazy premise. This bad idea is most likely pushed by those who, as high school students, either slept through or were not exposed to a (dare I say) deep critical analytical study and factual examination in their American history and US Civics classes. In the scope of human history, America is actually a young nation! Now, you would need to be able to wrap your brain around that idea to understand what I will say next. The “who” and “what” we are economically, culturally, politically, and judicially is a creative combination of somethings borrowed, somethings modified, and somethings brand new. We are, in fact, the inheritors of many parts of many (some would say the best of) different historical-cultural traditions: Egyptian, Roman, Ancient Greece, Assyrian, Calvinism, Rousseau’s “The Social Contract,” Native Americans, Islamic, Masonic, Adam Smithism, (and sorry, but yes) Socialism, kidnapped and enslaved Africans, Judaic principles, the 12th century Italian banking system, the Renaissance, the Reformation, British, French, and Babylonian laws, etc., and of course, in addition, many Christian-based ideas; all coming together to form this current grand collage project that we call America. However, one of the critical irrefutable founding and core principles of the nation is the rejection of the idea of having a “state religion,” something our Christian praying in public spaces like schools friends have forgotten or were never taught.
But not to worry professional educators, this too shall change in time; and perhaps soon, because the first time a Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, (or any non-Christian) football, basketball, volleyball, baseball, etc. coach gathers a high school team for a pre or post-game (in their faith-tradition) prayer, the SCOTUS-6 will quickly ride back into the rescue of the angry right-wing Christian crowd; and prayer in schools will again be relegated to a non-issue status.