Photo credit: Raihan B / Shutterstock.com
When the Supreme Court ruled last month that a football coach at a public high school had the right to pray at the 50-yard line with his team, it opened the way for public school employees across the nation to lead their students in prayer. Kennedy v. Bremerton gives sports coaches, drama directors, speech and debate leaders, and teachers the right to engage in public expressions of personal religious belief in secular, tax-payer funded, spaces.
“The Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal,” wrote Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch in a decision that breaks decades of precedent, because “the Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression.” Despite the Court’s claim that students will never be coerced to join such activities if they are contrary to their own beliefs, because children wish to favorably impress authority figures, they will very likely feel pressured to engage in public demonstrations of fealty to God and country — and coach.
That ruling followed the Court’s decision in Carson vs. Makin to compel taxpayers in Maine to subsidize private religious instruction even if such instruction directly violates the religious, spiritual, or moral beliefs and values of the students and families who might lack a secular public school in the region. And the specifics of the case are chilling. The Christian schools in question bar not just LGBT students, but LGBT parents; one school excludes all students who are not Christian, an endorsement of a single faith that the establishment clause was explicitly designed to prevent.
The First Amendment’s establishment clause has withstood over 250 years of tests, but these two recent decrees from our highest court weaken the clause, which explicitly forbids Congress from making any laws that establish religion. Any religion. Though purporting to expand “religious freedom,” they move us closer to state-sanctioned Christian dominance, an outcome avidly desired by an influential wing of the GOP, but that is already leading millions of Americans to feel unwelcome in their own nation.
In fact, the Founders explicitly worked to prevent this. “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical,” declared Thomas Jefferson. Yet Carson vs. Makin does precisely that, compelling non-Christians and liberal Christians to support religious instruction that may be at odds with their own beliefs, many of which extend into the realm of the social. Some conservative Christian schools in Maine, for example, now instruct students to use “God’s word” to debunk Islam. After the ruling, taxpayers, including those of the Muslim faith, will subsidize such education. Atheist parents will be required to aid religious schools that believe that those who don’t believe in God lack a moral center.
As Jews, we are accustomed to being members of a religious minority group. Our parents (in the case of the first author) and grandparents (in the case of the second) came to this country fleeing persecution and because the US, lacking an established religion, seemed like a safe haven. In many respects, we are the lucky beneficiaries of their choices.
As members of a religious group which constitutes only 2.4 percent of the American population, Jews may feel marginalized, particularly at Christmas time, when public proclamations of Christian belonging are common. Deeds prohibiting the sale of property to Jews were legal in many states for over a century, and Jews were systematically barred from certain hotels, universities, and private clubs—even as late as the 1970s. Still, we have always felt secure in the knowledge that our nation’s explicit separation of church and state protects members of minority religious communities like our own. Are we heading into an era where religion will again become a litmus test for belonging? It’s one thing to live in a Christian-majority society, and quite another to live in a nation that institutionalizes Christian dominance, as these recent SCOTUS rulings, in effect, do.
Some will argue in response that greater public support for religion is actually “good for the Jews” (and Muslims, and Hindus, and others) because it encourages different religious groups to express themselves in public, and potentially receive state funding for doing so. But the problem with this “let a thousand religions bloom” argument is that in a United States dominated by the false belief that the Founders acted on Christian values, Christians, will always win, suppressing the rights of minority religious groups and marginalizing nonbelievers.
For instance, recently in Tennessee, judges dismissed a lawsuit brought by a Jewish couple denied the chance to adopt a child by a state-subsidized Christian adoption agency because they weren’t Christian. In Florida, civics seminars for K-12 public school teachers specifically designate the Christian God as the foundation of the nation’s rights and liberties, implicitly framing Buddhism, Islam, secular humanism, and other belief systems as un-American.
Undoubtedly, Evangelical judges will now feel empowered to lead Christian prayers in their courtrooms. Pious mayors will cite Bible passages to justify their policies at city council hearings.
As religion and state increasingly mix, we fear that the majority religious group will come to enjoy greater benefits, prestige, and financial support while religious minorities, including those who embrace no religion at all, will find themselves increasingly marginalized in public schools, city councils, and courtrooms. As importantly, a single set of moral and ethical values will come to frame policymaking.
As former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor explained, state-sanctioned religious endorsements “send a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.” Many Americans are well aware of the persecution of Muslims in India and China, and Christians in Egypt and Pakistan, but are we cognizant of creeping Christian supremacism in our own nation?
Paradoxically, the current move to reimagine the US as a Christian nation comes at a time when Christian identification and religious practice are actually in decline. In 2007, 78% of Americans identified as Christian; today 63% do. Church membership, belief in God, Bible reading, and regular church attendance are at all-time lows. Growing numbers of Americans are eschewing religion altogether.
And yet the push to enshrine Christianity as the national religion is perhaps stronger than ever, especially on a Supreme Court that professes to adhere strictly to the original intentions of the Founders.
But it is only by doing what the Founders intended–restricting the state support of religion in public–that we can prevent any one religion from crowding out and dominating over others, including those who profess no faith at all.
Arlene Stein is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University. She is the author of The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community’s Battle Over Sex, Faith, and Civil Rights (2001), which will be reissued in October by Beacon Press.
Phil Zuckerman is Associate Dean at Pitzer College and the author of What It Means to be Moral (Counterpoint, 2020).