The hardest lessons are the ones you have to learn twice. Maybe even three or four times. The U.S. Supreme Court is reconsidering just such a lesson, and the outcome could not be more momentous for America.
A public school teacher/coach is asking the nation’s highest court to make his school district rehire him after he refused to stop praying with his players on the 50-yard line after their Friday night football games. He claims it is his constitutional right to the free exercise of his religion.
I know a little something about that.
I am a Baptist preacher. I was also a religious liberty lawyer for 20 years. Practiced at that same Supreme Court. Taught at Georgetown Law. During the 1990s, I was chairman of the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion. Our members included more than 80 national organizations ranging from Mormons and Southern Baptists to Sikhs and Orthodox Jews. We drafted and provided the grassroots support for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — the primary legal vehicle for many if not most modern free-exercise-of-religion claims. We also spun off a broad-based coalition that generated consensus guidelines to ensure the free exercise of religion in public schools. Those guidelines were ultimately mailed to every public school district in America. And here’s the best part. They worked. School districts from California to Texas, Georgia to Utah, Oklahoma to North Carolina received in-depth training in how to live together as one nation across our religious differences.
The consensus that was forged among these disparate groups was simple. Religious liberty rights of students were to be protected. Students were free to pray alone or in groups, have Bible clubs, share their faith and distribute religious literature as long as they did not disrupt school or infringe upon the rights of others. Teachers — who are employees of the state — had a more complicated role. Yes, they have religious liberty rights, but they are also subject to the “no establishment” clause of the Constitution, which requires the government to maintain a posture of neutrality towards religion — neither promoting nor discouraging religious faith.
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Does that mean teachers can’t pray, wear a Star of David or make the sign of the cross, as Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked the school district’s attorney during oral argument? Of course not. But it does mean teachers may not lead, direct or participate in prayers with students while at school.
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A Sunday school class is not “at school.” The Friday night football game is.
What’s at stake here is not just one coach and one public school. It is religious liberty itself. Are we going to allow government to play church? Allow public school teachers to promote and proselytize whatever religion they choose? Will we feel the same when the prayers are Muslim, Hindu or Wiccan, as they will be in some parts of our diverse nation? To paraphrase James Madison — the primary author of our Constitution — can we not see that the same authority that can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions may establish with the same ease any other religion in exclusion of Christianity?
This case is not about whether a coach can take a knee and pray. Of course he can. This is about whether a public school teacher can use his position to promote his particular faith to his students. Encourage THEM to pray — however subtly.
I would remind you that there is no religious consensus in America. We are home to literally thousands of religions as well as endless varieties of the Christian faith. To start back down the road of allowing public school teachers to decide which religions will be promoted and which will not is sheer madness.
And here’s the thing. God doesn’t need the government’s help. True faith has always flourished on its own, thank you very much.
The Supreme Court should do both America and authentic religion a favor by dismissing this misguided appeal.
Oliver “Buzz” Thomas is a retired minister, constitutional lawyer and former Tennessee school district superintendent.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Supreme Court shouldn't let schools play church