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Opinion The Supreme Court’s threat to the separation of church and state

Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joseph A. Kennedy takes a knee in front of the Supreme Court after his legal case, Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, was argued before the court. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Every few months, another conservative Christian media darling arrives at the Supreme Court, claiming they have been victimized by oppressive government agents wielding the First Amendment’s establishment clause against them.

And every time, they get a sympathetic hearing from the conservatives on the court. That’s because the court’s project to whittle the separation of church and state down to a sliver is proceeding inexorably in one direction.

It happened again this week, when the court heard the case of Joseph A. Kennedy, a football coach from Washington state whose postgame 50-yard-line prayers have become a cause célèbre on the right. While it’s not completely clear how far the court will go when it rules, oral arguments left little doubt that the conservative justices will use the case to continue their long campaign against the establishment clause.

That project is not an end in itself. It is part of the broader culture war, and if there are many areas where conservatives hope only to slow progress, this is one place — with the extraordinary power they hold on the court, and their eagerness to use it — that they can successfully turn back the clock.

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The story the right tells about Kennedy is one of a humble, pious coach who wanted only to engage in private prayer after games — “a brief prayer of thanks,” as his lawyer put it — and was persecuted by his employer as a result. That story is a complete distortion of the facts in this case. But it’s a common one, in which conservatives claim that if they are not allowed to impose their religion on others, then they have been victimized and the Constitution must bend to accommodate them.

In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled that school-sponsored prayers, even vague, nondenominational ones, violated the establishment clause’s prohibition on the establishment of state religion, even if they were supposedly “voluntary” for students. This decision was one of the most controversial in the court’s history, and to this day some conservatives blame it for for a range of societal ills from births out of wedlock to school shootings.

Then in 2000, the court addressed whether it was permissible for a school to allow student-led sectarian prayer during events such as graduation and football games; the court said no. Students and faculty are free to pray on their own and gather to do so; the question is whether those prayers are official in any way.

In this case, the coach’s prayers were not private or individual at all, no matter how many photo shoots he does portraying himself as a solitary figure communing with his god. They were not only public but also clearly a performance meant to attract the maximum attention possible; if you’re praying for yourself, you don’t go to the 50-yard-line at the conclusion of the game to do it.

The school eventually suggested that it could provide a private space for him to pray if he wished. Instead, he hired lawyers and went on a media tour, turning his prayers into a gigantic spectacle.

Some students on the team reported that they felt compelled to participate, which is completely unsurprising. If you were trying for a starting spot and your visibly devout coach was leading postgame prayers, of course you’d conclude that taking a knee for Jesus within the coach’s view would keep you in his good graces.

The court’s conservative majority might not be willing — yet, anyway — to overturn the court’s 1962 decision and welcome prayer back into public schools. But they’re eager to crack that door open, even just a little bit here and there, all on the theory that not allowing conservative Christians to force their religion on others is a form of oppression.

And yes, we’re talking about Christians here. If you think the conservative justices would have the same sympathy for a coach using a school event to hold Muslim or Hindu prayers, you don’t know much about this court.

It’s also important to realize that, contrary to the story conservatives tell, public schools in America today are absolutely brimming with religious activity, full of Good News Clubs and Christian Fellowship Associations and Bible study groups and hundreds of other student organizations. To operate in schools, they have to be primarily student-led, but the idea that public schools are a place where Christianity is banished couldn’t be further from the truth.

Nevertheless, conservatives hold on to the fantasy that because some department stores have signs reading “Happy Holidays” and gay Americans are now allowed to marry, Christians in America have become an oppressed majority. In recent years, this has become its own article of faith on the right, not just an empirical claim about life in America but itself an emblem of identity. To say that Christians are persecuted is to announce your membership in the conservative tribe.

Their real problem is not that they’re oppressed but that they don’t want America to be a truly pluralistic society, one in which their particular traditions and doctrines are not dominant but have equal standing with those of everyone else. That is what they are determined to forestall. And for years or even decades to come, the Supreme Court is going to do everything it can to help them.