Two Supreme Court rulings from last week and this have clarified the status of religious freedom in relation to the State, affirming that the State cannot discriminate on the grounds of religion and cannot unduly burden or punish a person in the practice of his or her faith.
The first case, Carson v. Makin, challenged a Maine law whereby school districts without public high schools pay tuition so their students can attend the public or private school of their choice in another district. Basically, the tuition money would follow the student to whichever school they attended. But the law forbade schools from receiving the tuition for a particular student if it was a religious school. The question is: was Maine barring funds to religious schools because the school would use the money for religious purposes, or simply because the school was sectarian. The Court ruled that the Maine law violated constitutional protections for religious freedom because the funds were barred simply because the school was affiliated with a religious tradition. This amounted to religious discrimination. Basically, if a public benefit is made available to other schools or families, the Court ruled that such benefit cannot be barred from religiously affiliated schools simply on the grounds that the school is religiously affiliated. Doing so violates the parents’ and students’ right to freedom of religion by pressuring them to attend a non-sectarian school. A public benefit such as Maine’s school tuition program is contributed to be everybody. So, everybody ought to be able to benefit.
The second case, Kennedy v. Bremmerton School District, involved the Bremmerton School District choosing not to extend the contract for Joe Kennedy. Kennedy had been the assistance football coach at Bremmerton High School in Washington. It had been his practice to go to the middle of the football field after a game and, kneeling on the fifty-yard line, offer a brief prayer. He had been in the practice of doing so for years. Students began to join him. After a while, Kennedy would offer a brief inspirational talk that included religious themes to the students. When the school district learned of his practice, Kennedy was instructed to stop, and he did. However, he continued going to mid-field personally and privately to kneel and offer a brief prayer. Even this was too much for the head coach and the school district. Kennedy’s contract was not renewed as a result, and he elected not to re-apply for the position.
In his majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote: “Respect for religious expression is indispensable to life in a free and diverse republic – whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head. Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by” the First Amendment.
The bottom line is, government employees, or employees of any institution, do not surrender their rights when they clock in for work. So long as no one is being pressured to engage, or rewarded when they participate or punished when they don’t, individual expressions of religious faith are protected by the Constitution. Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s contention that, since teachers are leaders and can influence others, or that students may feel pressured to participate in order to get in the good graces of a teacher or coach, is a stretch. You could apply that argument to almost anything. A teacher wears a tie to school. Will students feel pressured to copy this fashion statement in order to get in good with said teacher? You could just as reasonably argue that a teacher’s lack of religious practice could put just as much pressure on a kid.
There are too many “experts” in this country who argue that the purpose of the First Amendment is to protect government from religion, rather than to protect religion from government. There is no reason that a free people in a free society cannot go about their daily lives, even at work and even when working for the State, and not continue to express their faith in reasonable and unimposing ways. To assume that every expression of religious faith imposes on others is to hold a default position that is both unfair, hostile and, frankly, discriminatory.
The Supreme Court got it right. Thanks be to God!
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.