Teachers Have Free Exercise Rights, Too

Using the Establishment Clause as a brake on the Free Exercise Clause, the Ninth Circuit has recently held that a public school could prohibit a high school football coach from kneeling by himself on the field to pray briefly after a game because students could see him exercise his religion in that way.  NLF will file an amicus brief on behalf of itself, the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, Samaritan’s Purse, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the National Association of Evangelicals, and other organizations to support the coach’s request that the Supreme Court take his case and reverse it.

The Ninth Circuit panel seems to have a view of religion that it may be put on and shed at will, or at least that it is a purely private enterprise that can be wholly internalized and should be hidden during government employment.  That is not an accurate view:  many Jews wear yarmulkes, many Muslim women wear headdresses, and the New Testament enjoins Christians to “pray without ceasing.”  (I Thes. 5:17.)  That view is also antithetical to the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion and speech and assembly.

Obviously, a public school teacher wears two hats simultaneously-–that of a private citizen and that of a government worker.  No reasonable observer is confused by that.  Thus, action taken by a teacher, even on school grounds and during school hours, that is obviously personal in nature and does not interfere with the teacher’s job responsibilities has the full protection of the Free Exercise, Speech, and Assembly Clauses and does not implicate the Establishment Clause.  For a school teacher, such actions of a private nature include such things as wearing an armband protesting the death penalty for religious reasons, wearing a cross or crucifix necklace, having a Bible on the desk, silently reading the Koran while proctoring a test, having a bumper sticker showing a church affiliation, bowing to say a blessing before eating in the cafeteria, hanging a favorite Scripture verse on the office wall, sponsoring a student-led religious club, and explaining personal views on relevant subject matter when asked.  It turns the Constitution on its head to suggest that teachers may practice these rights as long as they do not involve prayer or other religious matter, when it is only the free exercise of religion that is specifically protected in the First Amendment.

The Establishment Clause does not require schools to be policed as a religion-free zone.  To the contrary, when teachers are acting in a private capacity, even when on school grounds and during school hours, their private freedoms may not properly be curtailed.  As the Supreme Court stated in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District when it upheld the right of a student to wear an armband symbolizing his objection to the Vietnam War, neither students nor teachers shed all their First Amendment rights when they enter the schoolhouse gate.  393 U.S. at 506 (1969). The Supreme Court should accept this case for review and reverse the Ninth Circuit.



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