In My Own Words: Freedom to, freedom from

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – United States Constitution

The above paragraph from the Constitution allows for complete freedom of religion. Or does it? It depends on which religion you practice. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision of April 17, 1990, in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith said that laws prohibiting Native Americans from using peyote in their religious rituals did not violate their freedom of religion, even though they had been performing those rites before white settlers arrived in the U.S. Something similar happened to the Church of Latter-Day Saints (AKA Mormons) when the U.S. Congress sought to disincorporate the church unless it stopped its practice of polygamy. The American right to practice a religion is not unlimited, at least if your religion is not a mainstream version of Christianity.

What made me think about this is the recent Kennedy v. Bremerton School District decision that allowed a public school educator (in this case a coach) to lead a prayer on the 50-yard line after football games. Now, I’m a cheerleader for the benefits of prayer. In fact, I think it would be wonderful if parents prayed with their children every day. However, the place for that is in their home or the church/synagogue/mosque of their choice. That way, they can lead them in the prayers of their particular religious tradition and model for them the importance of daily prayer. But I don’t think children should have to listen to a teacher/coach praying in a tradition that is not their own. That coach could certainly pray in private, but when prayer becomes public (and there are few things less private than the 50-yard line after a football game) then we have to consider that not only do we Americans have the freedom to practice our own religion, but we should also have the freedom to not have to take part in anyone else’s religious practice unless we freely choose to do so.

Before you say there is no coercion on the coach’s part, you should remember that there exists an imbalance of power between teachers and students. There’s a reason why teachers aren’t allowed to have sexual relations with their students, even if the students say they are willing. That’s because a teacher has power over a student in a way that is hard to define, but which limits relationships between teachers/students, doctors/patients, rabbis/people being counseled, etc. Students cannot help but wonder whether not participating would negatively effect their coach’s opinion of them. After all, this coach feels it’s very important to pray after a football game, which is a secular, not a religious, event. Some students, particularly those of different religious traditions, can’t help but feel coerced. And those who say the coach is doing this in a private capacity and not requiring the students to participate has not attended public school in far too many years: the pressure from teachers and peers is hard to ignore. Remember, the coach is not going back to his office or car and praying privately: he’s doing it publicly where it’s easy to note who is and who is not taking part. 

There were numerous memes on social media noting if this coach’s name had been Mohamed and he had pulled out his prayer rug and started chanting in Arabic, many people’s reactions would have been far different. I can believe that would be true because years ago I took part in a public service after 9/11 and was told not to use Hebrew in my remarks. I’m sure no one asked the ministers taking part not to mention Jesus. I complied by reciting Al Malay Rachamim (the traditional prayer that asks that the soul of the departed rest in God’s protection) in its English translation. The prayer was still beautiful, but the haunting melody used in Hebrew chanting can’t be captured in the spoken word. This event did make me note that many people still put limitations on religious practices that are not their own.

Jews need to watch this very carefully. The religious freedom we have in this country is based less on the freedom to practice our religion (as important as that is) than the freedom not to be forced to practice other religions. Unless you are willing to have your child recite prayers not only to Jesus, but Allah, Hashem, the Hindu gods Shiva, Krishna and Lakshmi, or the Wiccan deity personified as Mother Nature, then you have no right to say other children should have to listen to your religious practice. Actually, if we were to do that – open the worship to every type of religion – I would have fewer difficulties with allowing prayer in the public school system. But cynic that I am, I don’t think that will happen. Religious freedom means not only freedom to practice your religion, but the freedom from being forced, even as a bystander, to listen to those of another tradition.