(RNS) — On Monday (April 25), the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a major school prayer case in which the conservative justices will likely find constitutional sanction for teachers to mix public prayer with their official duties.
The complainant, Joe Kennedy, sued the Bremerton School District in eastern Washington state after it prohibited him from leading public prayers immediately following games. He rejected accommodations the district offered and alleges that his First Amendment rights were taken away.
The district maintains that the prayers had a coercive impact, if not intent, possibly convincing Kennedy’s players that taking a knee for Christ would find favor with the coach. That, district leaders feared, may have amounted to a violation of the establishment clause, the First Amendment’s prohibition against government promotion of religion.
A decision is not expected until summer, when we will know if a high school coach can legally pray with students on the 50-yard line after football games. In the meantime we can ask: Should he?
The justices will weigh the free speech and free exercise rights of public school employees against the rights of students from various faith backgrounds not to feel coerced into religious activities. Believers across the American religious landscape should question whether religious faiths are well served by public expressions in secular settings.
This — more than any legal reasoning — is the judgment believers are called on to make. In the exercise of liberty, we can recall the words of St. Paul: “’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.”
Ostentatious public prayers do not edify. If anything, they detract from serious Christian devotion. As with street-corner preachers who are well within their right but convince no one, Kennedy’s public postgame prayers were likely little more than a sideshow. The law may broadly permit it, but Christianity does not require it.
In fact, Jesus warned against showy public prayers, saying in the Gosel of Matthew that hypocrites love to pray publicly “that they may be seen of men.” God’s rewards, according to Jesus, flow to those who obey his command, “When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father.”
Perhaps, then, Coach Kennedy’s pastor — not his principal — should have counseled him not to lead postgame prayers with kids he has power over. These prayers were public, not private. They were teacher-planned, not student-led.
Paul Clement, a former solicitor general under President George W. Bush and a hero to the conservative legal establishment who helped argue Kennedy’s case at the Supreme Court, evidently believes Kennedy’s prayers present an important constitutional question. And it is important to protect teachers’ right to pray throughout the day if they wish, but Clement was at pains to defend Kennedy’s need to be maximally visible immediately after games.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked, “Why there?” Clement responded that Kennedy’s religious beliefs compelled him to pray at midfield.
It’s a very weak argument.
Christ himself not only does not require showy, potentially coercive public prayers — he teaches against them. Kennedy’s prayers may have provided psychological uplift to him, but they were not meaningful exercises in Christian faith and devotion.
Conservatives too often forget that, in their zeal to defend any and all Christian expression in the public square, they end up promoting a nominal, vapid Christianity. This feels good when you think you are losing ground in the broader culture. But it falls well short of serious Christian discipleship and spiritual formation, which conservatives claim to favor.
Parents in Bremerton were by all accounts divided over the issue, though those who opposed the prayers were likely less prone 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 lead them in prayer and Bible reading. They can model lives of fervent, devoted faith.
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But if anyone thinks a coach’s 90-second inspirational talk and prayer at 9:30 p.m. on a few autumnal Fridays is going to make teenagers into good Christians, they are very sadly mistaken.
I have been a strong advocate for religious liberty and do not like that Coach Kennedy was admonished by the school district. But with proper spiritual discernment, this could have been sorted out years ago in a small town 3,000 miles from the Supreme Court.
Instead, emboldened conservative justices will open the door to more nominal, cultural Christianity. It seems that in the era of former President Donald Trump and his judges, that’s all 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.)