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Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an evangelical Christian football coach in Bremerton, Wash. had the right to pray on the field after games. So what if the coach had been Muslim or Jewish, instead?
That’s what the social-media influencer and former pro basketball player Rex Chapman asked, in a tweet that went crazy-viral right after the decision was handed down. The blogosphere lit up with predictably polarized responses: liberals said a Muslim prayer would never be allowed, and conservatives insisted that it would.
I’m not sure, myself. But here’s what I do know: We need a non-Christian to test these waters, as soon as possible, so we find out what each side of the prayer battle truly believes.
Start with conservatives, who said they were shocked — shocked! — that anyone would question their commitment to religious freedom for all worshipers, Muslims included. “So, wait — do these people actually think Sam Alito and Amy Coney Barrett would hate the idea of Muslim coaches praying on their own after a football game?” asked Washington Examiner columnist Timothy P. Carney.
He’s right, about the conservative judges. Indeed, Justice Neil Gorsuch’s majority opinion, which Alito and Barrett joined, worried that if the Bremerton football coach was barred from praying, “a school could fire a Muslim teacher for wearing a headscarf.” I’m confident that these judges would uphold the right of that same teacher to roll out a prayer rug on the 50-yard-line and bow to Mecca after the game.
But it’s reasonable to ask how many other Republicans would. Remember, this is the same party that sponsored 120 bills in 42 state legislatures aimed at preventing the entirely invented threat of Islamic Sharia law. It’s the same party that led efforts to block the construction or expansion of mosques in over 50 different instances.
Republicans have pressed school boards to alter history textbooks that supposedly whitewash jihad — that is, Islamic religious war — and make students “susceptible to becoming terrorists,” as activists in Florida charged in 2011.
Two years later, Republicans forced a Kansas elementary school to take down a bulletin board about the five pillars of Islam after a parent complained that it didn’t include “killing infidels,” which she called the sixth pillar of the faith. And a Texas social studies teacher resigned after Fox News and other Republican outlets posted pictures of her students trying on a burka, as part of a lesson about Islam.
All of these attacks occurred during the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama. By 2010, his second year in the White House, 57% of Republicans said they suspected that Obama, with his strange-sounding name, was a closeted Muslim. That wasn’t true, of course, but it spoke volumes about Islamophobia in the GOP.
Do you really expect people who embraced that slur — or who supported the ban on travel from several Muslim countries enacted by Donald Trump, after he replaced Obama — to be OK with a Muslim coach praying on a football field? If so, you have a lot more faith in Republicans than I do.
On the other side of the political aisle, I also wonder how many of my fellow liberals would stay true to their principles and block the Muslim coach from worshiping on his own. Writing in Slate, columnist Mark Joseph Stern charged that the Bremerton decision embraced “a false narrative of faith-based persecution” of Christians. The people facing real danger in Bremerton are “Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and atheists,” Stern wrote, “who may now be subjected to thinly veiled pressure to practice Christianity at school.”
I agree. As a Jew — and as a civil libertarian — I’m terrified by that prospect. But what if one of those religious minorities was praying on the football field? And suppose the crowd was jeering at them, using the kinds of slurs we saw against Muslims during the Obama years?
Stern described the Bremerton decision as “another maximalist attack on the separation of church and state,” and he might be right. But if he wants to retain that separation — and to remain consistent in his beliefs — he’d have to block the Muslim coach from praying on the field, too. Would he? Would you?
As for Rex Chapman, he seems fine with in-school worship by every faith group. Answering his own question, about whether prayers by a Muslim or Jewish coach would be allowed, Chapman tweeted, “They are now. And good!”
We need another prayer case from a religious minority, right now, to discover how many of us think those prayers would be good, and for whom, and why.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools, which will be published in a revised 20th-anniversary edition this fall by the University of Chicago Press.