August 12, 2022
Will Kennedy decision change the religious landscape in public schools?
Kai Uyehara

Public school policies regarding religious practice based on First Amendment protections put schools in the position of maintaining separation between church and state — on the football field and elsewhere. (Kai Uyehara photo © 2022)

August 12, 2022
Will Kennedy decision change the religious landscape in public schools?
Kai Uyehara

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Religious freedom for government employees, students and athletes is at the core of the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District Supreme Court case — but so is the freedom from practicing someone else’s religion. 

School districts in Whatcom County say policies regarding religious practices for all parties have not and will not change as a result of the ruling. But the religious landscape in school and on the field remains to be seen when schools return in session in the fall.

The Supreme Court June 27 decision ruled in favor of former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joseph Kennedy praying on the 50-yard line after games by affirming that his practice was protected by the First Amendment. For years, until his paid suspension, Kennedy began his prayers alone, but within sight of all and often joined by players and spectators.

Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch in delivering the majority opinion said there was no evidence Kennedy coerced players. Justice Sonia Sotomayor in dissent argued that “students look up to their teachers and coaches as role models and seek their approval” and may even depend on it for playing time and other benefits.

Wide debate

The decision is an apparent shift in the country’s foundational separation between church and state and its in classrooms and on sports teams are being debated nationwide. 

“I was pretty troubled by the ruling in this case,” said Reverend Davi Weasley of the First Congregational United Church of Christ. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for a public school employee to be participating in religion in a way that might pressure others to [follow], especially students. I think that we can appropriately honor the wisdom and freedom of our students by letting them make their own choices about praying or not.”

Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu, who is a practicing Sikh, is concerned that children of minority religions could be coerced to pray on the field or in classrooms. 

“Right now it means it’s a bad precedent — it’s nothing more than that,” Sidhu said. “I’m more worried about how many other cases like that can go to the Supreme Court and can get similarly treated and encroach on the freedom of others in different ways.”

Boundaries unchanged

Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said in a news release that the decision affirms public school employees’ freedom to engage in individual prayer during school activities as long as it is not part of their official duties and does not explicitly or implicitly compel participation; a message echoed by the Bellingham Public Schools and Lynden School district officials in interviews. They say nothing has changed following Kennedy.

“We do have policy and procedure around religious related activities and practices that set those fence posts,” said Dana Smith, Assistant Director of Communications for Bellingham Public Schools. Sports coaches must comply with these policies for every school.

Smith and Lynden School District superintendent David VanderYacht aren’t aware of any coaches practicing religion publicly like Kennedy. 

In an article in the Lynden Tribune, Lynden High School head football coach Blake VanDalen said student athletes have been the ones to lead prayer intrasquad or with other teams, without the direction of their coaches.

Navigating the separation

Public schools are responsible for mitigating the separation between church and state among employees and students. For some, Kennedy challenges schools’ ability to maintain that separation.

“Church and state are separate, and schools will not embrace a particular faith or compel anyone to participate in or recognize any faith or religious practice,” Smith said. “If we were to learn of a practice that made students or families feel unwelcome or excluded, then that would be a conversation and opportunity to coach someone to do better.”

School populations include increasing religious and ethnic diversity, so it’s important for schools to navigate with objectivity, VanderYacht said, and to communicate what the decision does and doesn’t mean. 

Personal practice

Policy and procedure in Bellingham schools allow for personal, private religious expression, wearing religious clothing and jewelry and religious clubs. Gray areas arise when private and public practice may not be the same as personal and group practice.

“In Lynden, we’re a strong faith-based community and at times religion becomes one of those controversial topics,” VanderYacht said. “I think most people who follow a faith want to practice that in a way that’s free and understand the importance of government not being engaged in that.”

Though coaches aren’t bringing religion to the field, student athletes may be leading religious traditions, VanderYacht, a former girls fastpitch coach, said. “When you’re in a pretty strong faith-based community, those teams take on some different cultures.”

When students and team captains wanted to lead a religious practice, VanderYacht made sure they did it on their own time without his leadership.

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a nationwide organization that is not school funded, has a strong foothold in Lynden, said VanderYacht, as a number of student athletes are involved. 

“Since 1954, FCA has been challenging coaches and athletes … to use the powerful platform of sport to reach every coach and every athlete with the transforming power of Jesus Christ,” reads the organization’s mission statement.

“Most of the Sikhs believe religion is an individual, private thing and it should not be forced on the public,” Sidhu said. “If there are 20 kids in the team, all 20 kids may not be Christians. If the coach or certain players want to [pray,] they should do it in their privacy.”

Weasley, a progressive Christian, believes students can practice their religion individually while still at school. 

“When they are kind to other students, especially students that might otherwise be marginalized, they’re practicing their religion,” they said. “When they work for climate justice, they are practicing their religion. Certainly when they work to learn about and dismantle racism, they’re practicing their religion.”

Weasley believes avoiding coercive religious practice is respecting the religious freedoms of others. 

“It’s important for people of faith who are government employees to think not only about what’s legal for them to do, but what’s right for them to do,” they said. A public school employee using that platform to push religion might need to take a step back.

Who is protected?

Whatcom County, along with the nation, has significantly more Christian residents than practitioners of any other religion such as Sikhism, Islam or Judaism. The Supreme Court has been labeled pro-religion following decisions like Kennedy and another June decision that struck down a Maine law blocking taxpayer dollars from funding a religious school.

Sidhu believes Kennedy wouldn’t have made it before the Supreme Court if the petitioner were of a religion other than Christianity. 

He finds Whatcom County very accepting of Sikhs today, though he said raising his boys 30 years ago as the only Sikhs in their school district wasn’t easy. Sidhu thinks a Sikh football coach could be protected in practicing publicly by the Kennedy decision here, but that’s part of the problem.

“I’m not against people wearing religious symbols or burqas or anything, as long as they don’t encroach on others or force others to do the same,” Sidhu said. “I think that freedom should be at the workplace or in their home. Freedom is freedom.”

Being team players

Public schools walk the line between including and affirming students’ religions and promoting or silencing them as public institutions tasked with upholding freedom of religion and from another’s religion.

“That’s our line to say we are for everyone, we are inclusive of all religious practices or no religious practices at all if that’s someone’s ethic and it’s our job to educate our students and provide them with activities that are as inclusive as possible,” Smith said. “Inclusion is one of our six big strategies for supporting the learning and the well-being and the success of all the kids in our schools and our extracurriculars,” referring to Bellingham Public Schools’ Bellingham Promise.

“The more that we can honor and lift up the variations of people’s histories, the more that we’re going to be able to bring a range of fairness and knowledge and understanding and celebration of some of those histories in our people,” VanderYacht said. But being wary of not lifting any one religion too high in celebration is important in maintaining the separation of church and state, he said.

Though he hasn’t heard requests to pray on the field or in the classroom, VanderYacht said his “request to the coaches will be, if that’s on your heart to do that, then let’s engage on what those boundaries are … let’s make sure we understand what our board policy is, what the conclusions of the Supreme court actually are.”

VanderYacht believes schools and teams need time to process Kennedy.

“When new conclusions come, then there’s usually a time that we need to go through what that means,” he said. “Being able to help people process through and build understanding is really the approach that I plan to take.”

— Reported by Kai Uyehara

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