This week, a federal court of appeals upheld the policy of a public school district in New Jersey prohibiting a high school football coach from joining his players in prayer before games. Three weeks ago, two Delaware families settled part of a lawsuit against their school district concerning Christian prayer in their public schools. The cases have brought bitter recriminations among people in each community; in the Delaware case, one family had to move out of the school district to avoid anti-Semitism.
According to New York University journalism professor and author Stephen D. Solomon, the New Jersey ruling was consistent with prior cases saying that school officials participating in devotional activities are violating the First Amendment by appearing to endorse religion.
Solomon is the author of Ellerys Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle over School Prayer (University of Michigan Press), which tells the story of how 16-year-old Ellery Schempps objection to mandatory school prayer and Bible reading led to one of the most controversial court cases of the 20th century. The 1963 decision, Abington School District v. Schempp, still reverberates in the battle over the role of religion in public life. It prompted a conservative backlash that continues to this day-in the skirmishes over devotional exercises in the classroom, the controversy over the teaching of creationism and intelligent design, and the role of faith in Presidential campaign politics.
Americans have been fighting over religion in education since the first public schools opened their doors, says Solomon, pointing out that riots in Philadelphia in 1844 over Bible reading in the public schools claimed more than a dozen lives. Despite rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, the subject of school prayer still provokes passions, misunderstanding, and lawsuits today.
The coachs case, which may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, could affect many coaches who pray with their teams before games. Solomon points out that such situations are inherently coercive.
The football coach is a school official with considerable authority, says Solomon. Teenaged players who disagree with a prayer may nevertheless feel that they have to participate in the devotional activity. They may fear that if they excuse themselves from prayer, the coach will hold it against them in decisions involving their opportunity to play.
Reporters interested in speaking with Solomon should contact James Devitt, NYUs Office of Public Affairs, at 212.998.6808 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Solomon teaches First Amendment law and holds a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center. He is co-author of Building 6: The Tragedy at Bridesburg, and his articles have appeared in publications including the New York Times Magazine and Fortune. See Solomons website (www.stephendsolomon.com) for information about the Schempp case and about the most recent controversies over religious exercises in the public schools.