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Coach prayer case hinges on Roberts

Players’ choice to join in could mean time on field or getting benched

Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of a Bremerton, Washington, football coach who says he was fired for praying on the 50-yard line. But looking at how the arguments unfolded, two different questions stand out: How is Chief Justice John Roberts going to vote? And why did the court even take this case?

The more obvious question – whether the court will adhere to precedent or undermine the separation of church and state – is unknowable. That will likely depend on Roberts. He has been the swing vote in a number of cases in which the court’s disparate wings have split.

The second question is more problematic. As several justices pointed out, this case is a mess – with facts, motives and previous testimony all at issue. What seems likely is that the court’s reactionary component is simply nostalgic for the 1950s.

But that presupposes a nation that no longer exists and really never did. It envisions a classroom full of small-town white kids mouthing a Protestant prayer, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing “My country ‘Tis of Thee ... .”

Even though some of us actually remember that, it was cultural fantasy even then. In today’s world – where Black people can vote, women have access to contraception and conversations in Spanish are commonplace – it is simply alien.

Some questions, however, are obvious. The football coach involved is a white, male, presumably straight, Christian. But would his backers show the same support for religious expression if this had been the girls’ swim team and the coach was a Black lesbian Buddhist? How would they feel if the coach invoked Allah and was bowing toward Mecca? Several justices asked similar questions.

Ultimately, that gets to the real issue. There is no law and no court ruling that bans prayer in schools. Students can pray alone or in groups. None of that is forbidden. What is not allowed is to coerce students into prayer.

Coerce sounds harsh, but it can take many forms. As came up in the court, football players may think that bending a knee with the coach could lead to more playing time – or that not doing so could get them benched. That is not the kind of thinking that should be associated with a constitutional right.

That right must also be better understood. While the First Amendment guarantees the “free exercise” of religion, it first forbids the “establishment of religion.” And that is a protection that works both ways.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, an Episcopal priest named Randall Balmer says that the greater danger for the faithful is trivialization. He cites Roger Williams, founder of the Baptist tradition in this country, as coining the term “wall of separation” – not to protect the state or the public from religion, but to protect the church from the outside world.

And, pointing to Matthew 6:6, he paraphrases Jesus, saying: “Pray in a closet, not at the 50-yard line.”

Perhaps John Roberts will see that too.