In a diverse democratic society like ours, there are some issues that never get settled once and for all. The complex and multi-faceted issue of religious rights and freedoms in our nation is never on a back burner for long. Current cases, national and local, prompt me to offer some additional perspectives beyond those I have previously shared in this space. I hope my musings prove helpful to others and may prompt letters to the editor to keep the conversation going.

High school football coaches seldom make national news. But a west coast case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. For some 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 in thanking God, whether the team won or not. When his act of piety came to the attention of the Bremerton school board, they demanded he cease and desist. Some students, the board concluded, felt coerced and thereby their freedom of religion was infringed. Kennedy argues his freedom of speech and right to exercise his beliefs were curtailed, and his firing was wrongful termination.

In sorting it out, the justices will struggle to balance Kennedy’s freedom of religion and speech with the rights of high schoolers to avoid being coerced by an influential adult who holds power over them. The court will wrestle with whether Kennedy’s prayers are the pious acts of a private citizen or conducted as an employee of a governmental agency, which cannot impose particular religious views or practices.

As pointed out in an Atlantic article by David French, “Let Coach Kennedy Pray” (www.theatlantic.com), this case comes before the high court in a season when public school teachers and administrators are under fire. Across the land, debates rage over the degree to which teachers’ academic and personal freedom may be curtailed to avoid what some conservative parents and legislators regard as political “indoctrination.” French argues that a decision to stop the coach’s praying could further fuel fires that threaten teachers’ freedom to exercise their vocations.

Closer to home, recent events have brought out other aspects of the perennial religious freedom debates. In his gubernatorial campaign speeches, Doug Mastriano has scoffed at the concept of “separation of church and state.” Some of his campaign rallies are barely distinguishable from evangelical Christian revivals, sprinkled throughout with hymns, prayers, hand-waving, and public invocations in the name of Jesus.

Of course, Mastriano is not unique 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 saying, “God bless America,” “God bless our troops,” or “God bless us all.”

While some citizens may cringe, it appears the vast majority take such presidential speech finales in stride, as we do “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, and “In God We Trust” engraved on our coins and imprinted on our paper currency. Although the phrase “so help me God” can be omitted in trial witness oath-taking, or the oath sworn by new U.S. citizens, few exercise the option.

An arena in which the issues of church-state relations have come to the fore throughout history is the military, particularly when it comes to military chaplains. Prior to and during World War I, soldiers were ministered to only by Roman Catholic priests and Protestant ministers. Then, according to a history of the chaplaincy by Ronit Y. Stahl of the University of California, Berkeley, came Jewish, Mormon and Christian Scientist chaplains. Their hiring signaled the U.S. government’s recognition of the legitimacy of their faith traditions. Stahl reports 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 table of “Faith and Belief Codes” listing over 200 denominations and religious groups that includes Sikhs, Wiccans and Atheists.” While that list may seem expansive, estimates there are around 4,000 different religions in the world make it clear who may serve as chaplains will continue to be contested.

That this whole area is so murky results, at least in part, from ambiguity in our fundamental governing documents. While the word “God” does not appear in the U.S. constitution, either it or “the divine” is included in all 50 state constitutions. Still, the first amendment makes it clear that those who do not believe in God are also good, upstanding, constitution-abiding citizens or residents. No credible claim can be made that the founders’ intent was to establish a “Christian nation.”

The “separation of church and state” is no matter for derision, as Mastriano seems to regard it. But it’s often misunderstood and used to browbeat clergy to avoid any mention of “politics” in churches and other faith communities. My Lutheran denomination has long described the relationship as one of “institutional separation” with “functional interaction.” While not “of the world,” persons of religious faith live “in the world” and must constantly interact with government. But government cannot dictate what we believe or how faith communities conduct their internal lives.

So, where do I come out on the specific issues cited above? I agree with Episcopal priest Randall Balmer, who in a Los Angeles Times op ed urged Coach Kennedy to heed Jesus’ encouragement to “pray in secret in your closet” (Matthew 6:6) and not on the gridiron where some may feel pressure to join him. His being on the school’s payroll as coach would seem to make it clear he is, in fact, a governmental official who should not publicly preference any religion on campus.

Given the weight of the first amendment, state constitutional clauses affirming the existence of a divine being, and long-accepted claims made on our currency and in our flag-pledge and oaths, candidates’ and officeholders’ references to “God” are likely to endure. But going beyond that, in the way Mastriano and other Christian nationalists do, becomes discriminatory. It represents profound misunderstandings both of Christianity and the American way.

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

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