Imagine your boss fervently proclaiming his religious beliefs at the end of a companywide meeting, inviting everyone on the team who shares those beliefs to join in. You’re surrounded by colleagues and other higher-ups. Everyone is watching to see who participates and who holds back, knowing that whatever each of you does could make or break your job and even your career, whether you share his convictions or not. But hey, totally up to you!
That’s what Joseph Kennedy, a former assistant coach in Kitsap County, Wash., did with his team — only he did it with public-school students at a high-school football game. When the superintendent made clear that by actively inviting players to join him at the 50-yard line for postgame Christian prayers, he was violating school policy and, by the way, the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, Kennedy took to the media, turning a small town’s school sporting event into a three-ring circus and ugly social media sideshow, with students effectively forced to perform or suffer the consequences.
Naming the single worst decision of the Supreme Court’s disgraceful 2021-22 term is a tough call. But the one that best captures the majority’s brazen efforts to inflict its political and religious agenda on the rest of the country may well be Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, which ruled that the coach had a constitutional right to pray on the field. Overturning precedent and in a cynical elision of fact, Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for a 6-to-3 majority, affirmed Kennedy’s assertion that his proselytizing on government property during a public-school function was “private,” “personal” and “quiet.”
It was nothing of the kind. In easily observable fact, Kennedy’s religious display was public, vocal and coercive, as demonstrated by testimony from football players and other community members and by video and photographs of the coach surrounded by crowds of people on bent knee. According to an amicus brief filed by one of Kennedy’s football players and seven other members of the community on behalf of the school district, participation in Kennedy’s prayers was “expected.” Students were explicitly encouraged by him to ask the other teams’ coaches and players to join in, something Kennedy himself boasted about.
But this court’s right-wing majority is following the dictum of our Trumpian age: Objective truth doesn’t matter. Subjective belief — specifically the beliefs of the court’s religious-right majority — does. The Kennedy decision wasn’t based on the facts but on belief in the face of facts. Moreover, those six justices are determined to foist their beliefs on the rest of the country.
In allowing for greater “religious expression,” the court curtailed the liberty of those whose prayers take other forms, Americans who practice non-Christian faiths and people who do not practice religion at all. Kitsap County is home to a variety of religions, including Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism and Baha’ism. A coach-led Christian prayer on the playing field is necessarily exclusionary.
Students who walked off the field rather than take part in Kennedy’s prayers may have risked losing playing time and perhaps a path to a football scholarship. No athlete on a public-school team should have to pray to play.
“Kennedy v. Bremerton opens the door for so much more government promotion of religion and a great deal of religious favoritism by government officials,” Daniel Mach, director of the A.C.L.U.’s program on freedom of religion and belief, told me. “I think we are likely to see a lot more blatant religious favoritism by school officials who feel emboldened by the decision.”
This comes at a moment when, for the first time, a minority of Americans belong to a church, synagogue or mosque — only 47 percent in 2020, down from 70 percent in 1999. The number of nonbelievers is on the rise, with roughly one in four Americans identifying as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” Belief in God also fell to an all-time low in 2022, with 81 percent of Americans believing in God, down from 98 percent in the 1950s.
This trend is surely part of what drives the resurgent Christian right, and it may well even be on the minds of the current conservative majority on the Supreme Court, five of whom are Catholics and one of whom was raised Catholic but attends an Episcopal church. With their brand of religious dogma losing its purchase, they’re imposing it on the country themselves.
They target a vulnerable population. One atheist student on Kennedy’s team reported feeling coerced to participate. He described feeling “uncomfortable and unsafe” during a chaotic scene in which over 500 people stormed the field to join in Kennedy’s prayers. This deprived the player not only of his free-exercise rights, but also, according to the brief, of “his love for football, lasting friendships with his teammates and the respect he otherwise earned from his coaches.” Years later, the brief reports, he feels traumatized.
It’s also a largely powerless population. While the percentage of nonbelievers in America is increasing, secular humanists and atheists are among the least represented groups in American politics. And while 60 percent of Americans say they would vote for an atheist for president (up from 18 percent in 1958), only one member of the 117th Congress identified as unaffiliated with any religion in a 2021 Pew poll. None identified as atheist or agnostic.
It’s still dangerous to come out as an atheist in many parts of America, according to Rachel Laser, president and chief executive of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “We have religious-minority and atheist plaintiffs and clients who have received death threats and have had their kids physically attacked, their pets killed, their home windows shot out and their businesses boycotted,” Laser told me. “Many are too afraid to be named as plaintiffs and insist on being anonymous because they fear for their own and their families’ health and safety.”
Those who objected to Kennedy’s behavior similarly faced harassment in their communities and on social media. When Jennifer Chamberlin, a teacher in the school district, came out publicly in favor of her employer, she became, in her words, “a social pariah.” According to the amicus brief filed by community members on behalf of the school district, the situation forced her to “come out as atheist,” something she hadn’t previously done because “she was afraid of being ostracized.” The brief explained that being outed as a nonbeliever “resulted in ‘one of the most difficult times in her life’” and that her son “also suffered and was ‘constantly having to defend’ his mother from classmates and community members.”
Such intolerance mirrors the strong-arming intentions of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority. Unhappy with what much of the country believes, the court’s right wing chooses to believe what it would like and foists the results on the rest of us. Just like Coach Kennedy, they’re out to proselytize.
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Pamela Paul became an Opinion columnist for The Times in 2022. She was the editor of The New York Times Book Review for nine years and is the author of eight books, including “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet.” Facebook