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What the Supreme Court school prayer decision will mean for Michigan

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Michigan school officials are studying how a U.S. Supreme Court decision on school prayer will impact their policies. (Shutterstock)

A U.S. Supreme Court decision broadening protections for school prayer could shift how Michigan schools address teachers, coaches or other employees who express their religious faith at work. But school leaders say they are still digesting the ruling, and whether it requires them to change policy.   

In its ruling Monday, the court’s conservative majority found by a margin of 6-3 that a school district in Washington state violated the First Amendment religious rights of a high school football coach by punishing him for praying at midfield after games.

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The facts of the case remain in dispute. Assistant football coach Joseph Kennedy said he was punished for engaging in brief, quiet and private prayer while players hugged friends or sang the school’s fight song following games. The school district said he was disciplined for violating its policy by encouraging students to pray with him.  

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Much of the debate hinged on whether a school official’s visible display of prayer — whether or not the official directly asked students to join in — puts undue pressure on students to participate or risk being marginalized. 

Michigan State University professor of law and education policy Kristine Bowman told Bridge Michigan that schools across the state are trying to figure out what this ruling means and how to apply it. 

She said she believes the decision lacked clarity on how schools regulate employee behavior during co-curricular activities, school clubs, sports and graduations. She said the ruling also left unclear when a school official is acting in their public or private capacity when they are still on the job. 

Eaton Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Bill DeFrance said his district will be “very cautious” on what to do about prayer given the court ruling. He said he would want to see more guidance on the issue because “kids are impressionable.” He anticipates that he’ll receive help from the law firm the district keeps on legal retainer. 

“I think, no matter how we do this, we have to have plenty of options for people to either participate or not participate,” he said. 

At the same time, DeFrance said he would be curious to know if this issue becomes a hot issue in Michigan schools. 

“I just think that we'll have a lot bigger fish to fry than this issue about prayer,” he said. 

Dearborn Public Schools Communications Director David Mustonen said he does not see the ruling immediately changing anything in that district since staff members are already welcome to practice their religions as long as it doesn’t interfere with their jobs. 

For example, he said, staff members may choose to find a private spot to pray during the school day or during religious holidays like Lent or Ramadan. Students can talk to their administrator to request a quiet space to pray too, he said.

Mustonen said he does not imagine any major issues or concerns with the ruling because the district has not had “staff members openly practicing their religion, whatever their religion may be, in public areas.”

The Michigan Department of Education said it would review the Supreme Court’s ruling with the state attorney general’s office to “consider its implications for Michigan’s public schools.”

Michigan Association of School Boards Executive Director Don Wotruba said his organization will work to ensure their members know about the Supreme Court’s decision. But, he said, the organization's lawyer is out of the office this week so he doesn’t know what specific guidance would look like.

He noted that fall sports will start in about six weeks and he expects school districts will need to follow the court’s guidance either through an announcement or by modifying school board policy. 

Hazel Park Schools Superintendent Amy Kruppe told Bridge that in her district the school board opens with prayer and students or coaches have prayed at school athletic events.

In her seven years in the district, she said she has not heard any complaints but knows other communities may have an issue with any type of prayer at school events. 

“And so I think it's interesting because I believe that it would be district to district, and community to community, and the community support that you would find prayer or not prayer,” she said. “So I don’t believe for Hazel Park it’s going to change anything unless it just brings light to something that some people wanted to do that they hadn't done.” 

The role of religion in public schools 

In the Washington state case, Kennedy acknowledged previously engaging in prayer with students on the field after games, and also led prayers in the locker room, which was a school tradition that predated him. He also gave motivational speeches to players that included prayer or religious references. He stopped the locker room prayers and religious references in his speeches when asked to by district administrators. However, he continued to kneel and pray after football games.

“Naturally, Mr. Kennedy’s proposal to pray quietly by himself on the field would have meant some people would have seen his religious exercise,” the majority opinion states. “Those close at hand might have heard him too. But learning how to tolerate speech or prayer of all kinds is “part of learning how to live in a pluralistic society,” a trait of character essential to “a tolerant citizenry.” 

The court dissenters sided with the district, the lower courts and, they argued, many of the High Court’s precedents in concluding a coach’s high-profile prayers on the field following games gave at least the appearance that the district, which Kennedy represented as a coach, was endorsing his Christian beliefs, violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. 

But the majority opinion, authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, countered that by zeroing in on Kennedy’s moment of prayer, the district was singling out and punishing his right to practice religion and speak freely under the same constitutional amendment. 

“An Establishment Clause violation does not automatically follow whenever a public school or other government entity “fail[s] to censor” private religious speech,” the majority opinion states. “Nor does the Clause “compel the government to purge from the public sphere” anything an objective observer could reasonably infer endorses or “partakes of the religious.”

Michigan State University Professor of Law Frank Ravitch said he worries about how this ruling will affect school children, particularly students who belong to non-majority religious groups. 

“The Supreme Court doesn't seem to care that there are people around the country who are trying to use public institutions to impose their religion and this decision seems to give (them) a lot more leeway,” Ravitch said. 

He said school districts are left between a “rock and hard place” as they balance “people who are now possibly privileged to try to use the public schools to promote their religion and parents and others who don't want their children to be prosthelytized” to by coaches or teachers, who can have an outsized influence on their grades or scholarship opportunities. 

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“This is a captive audience…the final whistle has blown and everybody is still there,” said David Bloomfield, a Brooklyn College and City University of New York Graduate Center education law professor. “And the students are looking out over their shoulder about what their coach is doing.” 

But Great Lakes Justice Center Senior Legal Counsel David Kallman said he believes the ruling will make it “a lot easier” for school districts to make decisions related to religion. 

School districts, he said, no longer will “have to try to nitpick and have nuance between ‘are we endorsing or are we not’ one religion over another. ‘Are we just accommodating religious beliefs?’ They don't have to get into any of that.” 

“Private speech, even by government employees, or at government events by private citizens, is not anything that's establishing religion and it should make it easier for schools to back off and let those sorts of things go on; like they've gone on for decades and decades.”

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