Religious Freedom a Hot Topic (Always!) | Staff/guest columns

In a diverse democratic society like ours, there are issues that are never settled once and for all. The complex and multifaceted issue of religious rights and freedoms in our country is never on the back burner for long. Current cases, national and local, challenge me to offer additional perspectives beyond those I have already shared in this space. I hope my thoughts prove useful to others and may prompt letters to the editor to continue the conversation.

High school football coaches rarely make national news. But a West Coast case is now before the United States Supreme Court. For a time, Joseph A. Kennedy of Bremerton, Washington knelt for a brief prayer after each game, inviting players to join him at the fifty-yard line to thank God whether the team won or not. When his act of piety came to the attention of the Bremerton School Board, they demanded that he cease and desist. Some students, the council concluded, felt coerced and, as a result, their freedom of religion was infringed. Kennedy argues that his freedom of speech and right to exercise his beliefs were curtailed and that his dismissal was wrongful termination.

Sorting out, the judges will struggle to balance Kennedy’s freedom of religion and speech with the rights of high school students to avoid being coerced by an influential adult who wields power over them. The court will consider whether Kennedy’s prayers are the pious acts of a private citizen or conducted as an employee of a government agency, which cannot enforce particular religious opinions or practices.

As an article in The Atlantic by David French, ‘Let Coach Kennedy Pray’ (www.theatlantic.com) points out, this case is being brought to the High Court at a time when state school teachers and administrators are under the fire of criticism. Across the country, debates rage over the extent to which teachers’ academic and personal freedom can be curtailed to avoid what some parents and conservative lawmakers see as political “indoctrination.” French argues that a decision to stop the coach’s prayer could further fuel the fires that threaten teachers’ freedom to practice their calling.

Closer to home, recent events have brought to light other aspects of the perennial debates over religious freedom. In his gubernatorial campaign speeches, Doug Mastriano mocked the concept of “separation of church and state.” Some of his campaign rallies are barely distinguishable from evangelical Christian revivals, peppered with hymns, prayers, hand gestures and public invocations in the name of Jesus.

Of course, Mastriano isn’t alone in using religious rhetoric while serving in one public office and running for another. Every president in my memory, including the current incumbent, has frequently concluded speeches by saying, “God bless America,” “God bless our troops,” or “God bless us all.”

While some citizens may cringe, it seems the vast majority are taking these presidential speeches finales in stride, as we do “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and “In God We Trust “engraved on our coins and printed on our paper money. Although the phrase “so help me God” may be omitted when swearing in witnesses at trial or when swearing in new American citizens, few exercise this option.

One arena in which issues of church-state relations have come to the fore throughout history is the military, particularly as it relates to military chaplains. Before and during World War I, soldiers were served only by Roman Catholic priests and Protestant ministers. Next, according to a history of chaplaincy by Ronit Y. Stahl of the University of California, Berkeley, came the Jewish, Mormon, and Christian scientist chaplains. Their hiring marked the US government’s recognition of the legitimacy of their religious traditions. Stahl reports that the first Muslim chaplain began serving in 1994, followed by Hindus in 2004 and Buddhists in 2011. Stahl goes on to say (https://www.militarytimes.com), “In 2017, the Department of Defense released a new ‘Codes of Faith and Belief’ chart listing more than 200 denominations and religious groups including Sikhs, Wiccans and Atheists.” While this list may seem long, estimates that there are around 4,000 different religions around the world make it clear who can serve as a chaplain will continue to be contested.

That this whole area is so nebulous results, at least in part, from the ambiguity of our fundamental guiding documents. While the word “God” does not appear in the United States constitution, either he or “the divine” is included in all 50 state constitutions. Yet the First Amendment makes it clear that those who do not believe in God are also good, upright, and constitutionally abiding citizens or residents. No credible claim can be made that the intention of the founders was to establish a “Christian nation”.

The “separation of Church and State” is not a subject of derision, as Mastriano seems to consider it. But it is often misunderstood and used to bully clergy into avoiding any mention of “politics” in churches and other religious communities. My Lutheran denomination has long described the relationship as “institutional separation” with “functional interaction.” Although they are not “of the world”, people of religious faith live “in the world” and must constantly interact with the government. But the government cannot dictate what we believe or how religious communities conduct their internal lives.

So where do I exit on the specific issues cited above? I agree with Episcopal priest Randall Balmer, who in an editorial in the Los Angeles Times urged Coach Kennedy to heed Jesus’ encouragement to “pray secretly in your closet” (Matthew 6:6) and not on the grill where some may feel pressure to join. The fact that he is on the school payroll as a coach would seem to make it clear that he is, in fact, a government official who should not publicly favor any religion on campus.

Given the weight of the First Amendment, the state constitutional clauses affirming the existence of a divine being, and the long-accepted claims on our currency and in our flag and oaths, the credentials of nominees and office holders to “God” are likely to endure. But going beyond that, as Mastriano and other Christian nationalists do, becomes discriminatory. It represents profound misunderstandings of both Christianity and the American way.

An Adams County resident who also lives part-time in New York City, Cooper-White is president emeritus of the United Lutheran Seminary and director of Lutheran education at Union Theological Seminary. Opinions are his own.

Jessica C. Bell