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Stephen L. Carter

Parental Rights Were Ignored in the Praying Coach Ruling

The question is, did the coach’s behavior coerce children to join in and thus impede their parents’ right to determine their education?

When students watched him pray, did they feel pressure to join in? 

When students watched him pray, did they feel pressure to join in? 

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

It wasn’t hard to predict that the praying football coach was going to win his case in the US Supreme Court. As far back as oral argument, one could sense the justices’ skepticism about the proposition that a school can fire an employee for (in effect) disclosing to students his own personal religious beliefs and practices. What the justices decided in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District was that, unless the students were coerced to join in, the football coach who knelt at midfield after games was merely exercising his rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

As one who’s been writing about the Constitution’s religion clauses for more than three decades, I’m confident that the result is correct, assuming that we can rely on the majority’s summary of the facts. (The dissent sharply disputes the majority’s presentation of record.) But even though the First Amendment issue involved is hardly trivial, Bremerton is potentially more important for the illumination it casts on the larger and contentious contemporary debate over who gets to decide what kids are exposed to at school.