No student should ever be made to feel excluded in school.
But this past U.S. Supreme Court term delivered decision after decision dismantling decades of progress in the separation of religion and schools. The conservative justices of the court seem eager to erode this essential barrier and prevent us from fulfilling the promise of religious freedom for everyone.
Public schools are now a battleground for church-state separation, drawing attention and resources away from ensuring that every child receives a quality education. Our students don’t deserve that.
I was extremely privileged to attend a school district that always centered its students. From elementary school through high school, I experienced some of the best that public education had to offer. I firmly believe that was because student success was always the priority.
There were certainly areas where administrators were not perfect, but the opportunity and resources to learn were always there, free from debates that sought to divide the student body on their backgrounds, beliefs or identities.
My religious upbringing and educational journey were kept separate. As a result, whatever religious experiences I had were reserved for family, and the community I created within my school was free to reach across cultural and identity boundaries.
That freedom created rich friendships built on shared interests rather than religious ideology. It removed a barrier to connection – it’s one less thing that might make a student feel uncomfortable joining a club they’re interested in or talking to a teacher they admire.
That investment in students is everything and is exactly what public education should always be.
But inclusive public school classrooms like mine are increasingly under threat by the “Religious Right.” And in cases like Kennedy v. Bremerton, the current Supreme Court appears eager to join in this project.
In Kennedy, a high school football coach was asked by the school district to stop praying at the 50-yard line, sometimes with students. Coach Kennedy did not return to his position after his contract expired.
Instead of guarding the separation of religion and schools, the court decided that the school was incorrect to prevent Kennedy’s prayer, delivering a devastating blow to religious freedom that will make it that much more difficult to ensure students are respected and protected from discrimination.
And more cases involving similar circumstances are working their way through the federal courts.
On July 26, 2022, our team at Interfaith Alliance submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case Fellowship of Christian Athletes v. San Jose Unified School District Board of Education.
It involves a school district that “derecognized” the Fellowship of Christian Athletes club because it required leaders to sign a sexual-purity statement and statement of faith, excluding LGBTQ+ students and students of different faiths from leadership and violating the district’s non-discrimination policy.
The Religious Right is characterizing this case as an issue of religious discrimination. In reality, it is a calculated attempt to establish one set of beliefs as the norm – a tragic attack on LGBTQ+ students and students of different faiths.
After the Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy, we must be prepared for more attacks on public schools. From interfering in school curriculums to allowing public prayer in schools, our students’ ability to learn unencumbered, in a way that encourages them to think for themselves, is being stripped away.
These are attacks on the U.S. Constitution, on the safe space we’re called to provide for students, and on the diversity of belief and culture we’re meant to celebrate.
Striking a balance between respecting everyone’s ability to practice their beliefs and keeping public schools an inclusive space focused on education is difficult. But these challenges, whether they be at individual schools or before the Supreme Court, have an immediate impact on the lives and learning of students.
Each child should have an equal opportunity to grow and become leaders in their schools.
Students should always be the center of our conversations as we work to create environments for them to thrive. Work at the local level transforms the lives of those students and creates a blueprint for national change.
Interfaith Alliance and organizations that share our values will undoubtedly continue to challenge attempts to undermine public education. We have a constitutional mandate and a moral obligation to do so.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week focused on public education. The previous articles in the series are:
It Takes a Community | Kristina Collins
Why You Should Send Your Children to Public School | Cameron Vickrey
Advocacy associate for Interfaith Alliance.