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As the recent Supreme Court ruling Kennedy v. Bremerton allows football coaches to kneel with students in prayer on the fifty-yard line, it also opens the door for more teachers, coaches, and other public officials to practice their religion in public. This seems like an unhappy entanglement between religion and the state, but could secular defenders of religious liberty be empowered by this decision, as well?
Religious liberty and the First Amendment
Before turning to that question, let’s make sure we understand how the Kennedy decision fits within the conflicting religious liberty clauses of the First Amendment. The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The “establishment clause” prevents the state from supporting or getting entangled with religion. The point is to avoid the creation of an official religion or otherwise coercing people into supporting religion. The “free exercise” clause guarantees that individuals have a right to freely practice their religion.
The coach, in this case, Joseph Kennedy, claimed that in preventing him from praying on the fifty-yard line, the school district violated his “free exercise” of religion. The school district claimed that it was trying to avoid creating an establishment of religion. The conflict between these two clauses is real. For many years, Supreme Court rulings have erred on the side of preventing an establishment of religion. But the current Court allows for a broader interpretation of the free exercise of religion.
The recent Carson v. Makin decision used similar reasoning. It basically permitted private religious schools to receive state funds. Religious schools in Maine argued that they deserved state support. The state had refused, based on an “establishment clause” concern about state support for religious schools. The Supreme Court ruled instead that “a State violates the Free Exercise Clause when it excludes religious observers from otherwise available public benefits.”
How can secularists use the Court’s new rulings?
Defenders of secularism and religious liberty have been outraged by these decisions. Richard Laser, President and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (which worked with the school district in the Kennedy case) said, “This decision represents the greatest loss of religious freedom in our country in generations.”
Nick Fish, the President of American Atheists, warned that the U.S. is slipping toward theocracy, while Hemant Mehta, atheist commentator, and OnlySky columnist, noted that the case was based on lies. Tom Krattenmaker, author, and OnlySky columnist described this as an anti-social view of religious freedom.
In addition to the rightful fuming, what else can defenders of secularism do to respond?
Well, the Court’s ruling makes it possible for atheists and humanists to gather on the metaphorical fifty-yard line. With the Court’s broad interpretation of the free exercise clause, atheists should use this to speak more freely about their beliefs and to gather more openly in public to practice their “non-faith.”
Religious free exercise is not only for conservative Christians.
As an example, recall the case of Christmas displays in Santa Monica, California. A decade ago, atheists objected to the overtly religious symbolism of nativity displays in a public park near the Pacific Ocean. One could argue, on establishment clause grounds, that such displays should be removed. But another strategy is to argue, on free exercise grounds, that atheists should be invited to the party. The atheists of Southern California did just that. They applied for permits and were granted access to the park, preventing Christian groups from dominating the space. Things fell apart soon after that and the city banned religious displays on public property.
Toward a crowded fifty-yard line
The Court’s emphasis on the free exercise clause should open the door to more of these kinds of protests. Atheist coaches are as free to share their ideas with students as Christian coaches are. And this is not only about atheists. It is also about the wide and wonderful diversity of human religious and nonreligious expression.
If Coach Kennedy is allowed to pray on the fifty-yard line, then the same is true of a Jewish, Hindu, or Muslim coach. Heck, an atheist coach may want to give a quick lecture on humanism after a game.
Secular religious liberty is an equal opportunity value. We might prefer that the Court were more worried about the establishment clause, but now that the Court has ruled, the fifty-yard line should be crowded with a diverse group of free Americans.
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