More than once when I was a student at a public high school in southeastern Kentucky, the school administration organized an assembly where an evangelizing basketball team would come to our gym, show off their hoop skills, and then proselytize to us about Jesus. I was an openly gay kid unsure of his religion, but who knew Christianity was used as a cudgel with which my classmates regularly beat me and which the staff used to justify the bullying. I didn’t want to go.
“Your absence will be conspicuous and noted,” warned a well-meaning teacher. I believe her intentions were to spare me the pain of further ostracization and ridicule, but the message I took was more sinister: conform, or else. Whether the school meant to do this or not, I was singled out and made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome while everyone around me prayed. That feeling of being pointedly informed I do not belong has never left me and is a big reason why I have been back to my hometown exactly once in 15 years – and that was just to drive through.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that assembly in the wake of two recent Supreme Court rulings dealing with religion and schools. In Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, six conservative justices decided that school officials compelling children to Christian prayer is OK. Despite parents complaining that their children feared losing playing time if they did not join a football coach in public prayer before and after games, the court ruled that he – and teachers, coaches, and administrators everywhere – have a right to publicly pray in a classroom despite the fact that teachers are voluntarily there and children are compelled by law to attend school with no means of escape.
In doing so, it overturned a half-century of precedent that protected America’s multifaith children from religious coercion by public school officials. The court didn’t stop there, though. In Carson v. Makin, the same six far-right justices ruled that Maine must give taxpayer money to religious schools. Many Maine districts, by dint of being so isolated and sparsely populated, do not have high schools.
Bremerton, Washington – where the Kennedy case originates – is not rural. Maine, however, is the most rural state in the country by percentage of population that lives in nonmetropolitan counties. That’s worth noting, because I believe both cases, while certainly having profound consequences for students everywhere, will most affect rural Americans.
I sympathize with Maine parents who want the best for their children. I grew up in a similarly rural environment, and if my county didn’t have a public high school the nearest option to me would have been a religious school. According to the Department of Education’s own statistics, in 2015 three-quarters of the nation’s 5.8 million privately educated students were enrolled in religious schools.
As the Daily Yonder reported as far back as 2008, more and more rural parents were already sending their children to religious schools, often citing higher academic standards and religious and ethical values. “There is a stereotype among cultural conservatives,” Pentecostal minister Paul Prather said, “that public schools are filled with godless heathens who teach children in their classes to be homosexuals.”
That same fear is translating itself into homophobic Don’t Say Gay bills like the one in Florida. It is also leading to the destruction of funding for rural education, as more on the right push not for better public-school financing but to allow religious parents to opt out with vouchers. This is the opposite of what should be done.
We need to do more to invest in rural education – not subsidize discriminatory schools, especially when that subsidy can reduce funding for public schools. As the Washington Post reported in 2017, rural schools “stand to gain very little from the school-choice model. If anything, it could siphon away critical funding.”
Rural schools are already at a competitive disadvantage, struggling to attract quality teachers because of low pay, a shortage of housing, and other realities of rural life that suburban and urban schools don’t always encounter. Their tax bases are often smaller and poorer, meaning that they rely more on federal and state subsidies.
Adding in the religious component only exacerbates this problem and leads to more discrimination and unfair disadvantage. I’ve seen what can happen when we do. In 2006, then 20-year-old Jason Johnson was expelled from the University of the Cumberlands – a private conservative Christian college in Kentucky – because he is gay. “University of the Cumberlands isn’t for everyone,” then-college president James Taylor said. “We tell prospective students about our high standards before they come. There are places students with predispositions can go, such as San Francisco and the left coast or to many of the state schools.”
Technically, Taylor and the university were within their rights to set exclusionary policies. Johnson had no legal recourse, and so left the university. I helped organize a protest anyway, because the University of the Cumberlands had just received an $11 million state grant – taxpayer money – to help cover tuition for students and build a new pharmacy school. “It becomes a situation where the state is putting in place a program that would only be available to heterosexuals,” Ernesto Scorsone, at the time the only openly gay man in the Kentucky Senate, pointed out.
He was right – suddenly, gay people’s tax dollars were being spent to discriminate against them. That was manifestly unjust in 2006, and it remains so in 2022. “This Court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a concurring opinion to Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent. In that, Breyer rightly points out that America is home to more than 100 different types of religions – including those with no religion at all – and that the Establishment clause helps ensure religious strife does not engulf this land. “We have never previously held what the Court holds today, namely, that a state must (not may) use state funds to pay for religious education as part of a tuition program designed to ensure the provision of statewide public school education,” he writes. “What happens once ‘may’ becomes must?”
It’s a fair question, and one to which I have the answer. As someone who did not identify as a Christian in high school, I was consistently made to feel like an outsider, including by teachers. My biology teacher had a Bible verse on her desk and allowed students to promote unscientific creationist theories to the class. The bullying I received was no secret, but nothing was ever done to curb it, and indeed many students took their instruction from school personnel who allowed the bullying to go on. One substitute flat out said that it was because homosexuality is a sin. That day, a kid threw a desk across the room as he tried to attack me.
As someone who watched my tax dollars go to a university I could not attend, and who experienced what conservative Christianity in a classroom can do, I’m furious at these rulings. I was alienated and denied equality and equal protection and equal access because I was gay. Not only was I coerced into participating in religious functions – assemblies that were really revivals – but then, as an adult, I was forced to pay for my oppressors to continue discriminating against me. And now the Supreme Court has decided that is all OK by them.
In doing so, “it applies a nearly toothless version of the coercion analysis, failing to acknowledge the unique pressures faced by students when participating in school-sponsored activities,” Justice Sotomayor wrote. “Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents, as embodied in both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”
I never want another child to go through what I did in high school. All children deserve a quality education without fear of religious coercion, regardless of their beliefs. This court has trampled over that right, discarding it in favor of allowing public schools to compel students to pray lest they be publicly ostracized by teachers and their peers. That is what happened to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but twenty years ago, I could have sued the school and probably won.
Students today do not have that same right. That is as shameful as it is ludicrous. Freedom of religion must include freedom from religion, or it is no freedom at all. This Supreme Court has stripped our children of their most basic rights. I, for one, dissent.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared at The Independent, Newsweek, Business Insider, and elsewhere. He lives in East Tennessee