The Supreme Court has been in the news a lot lately. However, lost in the sauce of the Roe v. Wade decision is a couple of education-related decisions that could have ramifications for schools and students. Those cases are Carson v. Makin and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.
Carson v. Makin:
Maine, like many states, has a voucher program that allows students to use their education dollars to pay tuition at private schools. However, the program had a clause that forbid students from using that money at religious schools. The state would only pay for tuition at “nonsectarian” institutions. Other states with voucher programs allow money to be used at religious schools but some like Maine do not. Proponents of excluding religious schools say it is necessary to not violate the establishment clause … the part of the constitution that separates church from state. Until relatively recently, that was pretty much what the Supreme Court said too.
The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Maine cannot exclude religious schools from its voucher program. The decision was decided along partisan lines.
“We subsequently held, however, that a benefit program under which private citizens “direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice” does not offend the Establishment Clause.”
“As a result, in just a few years, the Court has upended constitutional doctrine, shifting from a rule that permits States to decline to fund religious organizations to one that requires States in many circumstances to subsidize religious indoctrination with taxpayer dollars.”
This decision doesn’t require states to fund private religious schools, but it does make it illegal to exclude them solely on the basis of their religious status. This means that states that choose to have a voucher program where said schools are currently excluded may have to include them now.
Kennedy v. Bremerton School District:
This case centers on a football coach who lost his job over an aftergame ritual in which he prayed at midfield. Because players would join in these prayers, the school district told Coach Kennedy to stop. He refused and as a result, is no longer the coach. On the surface the central question is simple: Can a public-school employee lead prayers on the job? However, there was some disagreement among justices on what these prayers looked like. The conservative majority described it as a quiet personal reflection. The liberal justices described it as a public spectacle.
The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the coach did have the right to pray at the 50-yard line after the games.
“There is no indication in the record that anyone expressed any coercion concerns to the District about the quiet, postgame prayers that Mr. Kennedy asked to continue, and that led to his suspension. Nor is there any record evidence that students felt pressured to participate in these prayers.”
“Today’s decision is particularly misguided because it elevates the religious rights of a school official, who voluntarily accepted public employment and the limits that public employment entails, over those of his students, who are required to attend school”
This decision would appear to overturn the previous precedent and open the doors to more prayer in schools. The Supreme Court doesn’t seem to buy the argument that a teacher or coach praying themselves rises to the level of coercion even if students or players join in. It’s unclear how this would look in a classroom setting. What is clear is that the court doesn’t think a public-school employee practicing their religion at work is inherently a violation of the establishment clause.
Read the decisions for yourself below: