When the U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled, in effect, that a high school football coach who led his team in Christian prayer at the end of games had a First Amendment right to use the public school system to promote his religion, critics warned that this was a foot in the door to more dangerous theocratic intrusions on America’s secular democracy. That moment might be now: Religiously based state legislation around the country, including in Missouri, is prying that door wide open, using the court’s ruling as justification. The faithful should be the first to object to this dangerous mixing of church and state.
The case of former Washington state high school assistant football coach Joseph Kennedy is one of those debates that can easily be made to sound like critics are overblowing it. So the coach knelt in prayer mid-field at the end of games. So he invited the players to join him. So most of them did — high school football coaches being something akin to deities themselves in the eyes of players eager for field time. What’s the harm?
The harm, according to at least one atheist student player who complained, is the implicit pressure to participate in a specific denominational prayer on public school property, during a school event, led by a school employee. The First Amendment is explicit in prohibiting government (which would include a unit of government like a public school district) from promoting religion. The Supreme Court in the past has upheld that principle. But the current conservative majority voted 6-3 on the coach’s side, declaring it “hostile to religion” for the district to prohibit his on-field proselytizing.
As The Washington Post reports, that ruling is now being cited by state lawmakers in pushing some of the roughly 1,600 pieces of legislation around the country this year attempting to further erode the wall of separation between church and state. The epicenter, not surprisingly, is Texas, where lawmakers have been pursuing measures including a requirement that schools post the Ten Commandments in every public school classroom. Proponents of that and other bills forcing religious dogma upon believers and non-believers alike no longer even bother to deny that’s what they’re doing. “There is absolutely no separation of God and government,” one Texas lawmaker declared, in defiance of the plain language of the Constitution. “It’s not real.”
Not to be outdone, Missouri lawmakers have sent Gov. Mike Parson a bill to allow public school districts to teach elective courses on the Bible. Nothing in current law prohibits public schools from teaching about the Bible, from a historic and literary standpoint, so why is such legislation necessary right now? Given the wider conservative movement toward outright theocracy, it’s a question Missouri’s leaders should answer.