How Voluntary Were Those Voluntary Prayers?

Rabbi Charles Arian

By Rabbi Charles Arian

Twenty-five years ago, I spent almost a year living and teaching at a Trappist monastery. I got to know the brothers quite well. Most of the year was quite comfortable and pleasant, but the one moment that stands out as not being so was attending the Easter Vigil.

The liturgy of the Easter Vigil contains readings from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, but does so in a way that makes the Jewish story simply a prelude to the Christian one — as if our story has no value in itself. It was very upsetting and I finally got up and left.

Later that day a number of monks sought me out and more than one said to me “as I was sitting there, I was asking myself how Rabbi Charles was hearing this.” That’s a part of what empathy is; hearing something not only with our own ears but with those of the other as well.

Last week, the Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, and held that a football coach had the right to pray at the 50-yard line after football games. He was usually joined by players who had, in theory, voluntarily decided to join their coach in prayer.

I’ve written and taught a lot in the last few months about the tension inherent between the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The government should not prevent people from practicing their religion, but they must also not create the impression that the government is endorsing religion in general or a specific religion. The Bremerton School Board felt that players could feel pressure to join Coach Kennedy in prayer and this violated the Establishment Clause, but the Supreme Court majority held that by preventing Kennedy from holding his prayer meetings it was violating his freedom of religious exercise.

I went to a public school in New Jersey that was almost entirely white and 90 percent Christian, mostly Catholic. One of the very few non-white students in our class was a Latina girl who was a Jehovah’s Witness. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that national flags are contrary to the biblical prohibition of idolatry and they do not pledge allegiance or stand for the national anthem. While everyone else in the class stood for the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, Laura sat quietly and respectfully at her desk.

It was only much later in life that I realized how courageous Laura was and how difficult this must have been for her. It’s relatively easy for six Christian justices to hold that Christian prayer held by a coach does not violate the Establishment Clause and that students who don’t choose to participate won’t feel alienated or penalized. But anyone who has been a teenager knows that peer pressure is real, and anyone who has been involved in high school sports knows not to alienate the coach. I cannot imagine being a Jewish or Muslim or atheist football player in Bremerton, competing with others on the team for playing time, and pondering whether or not to participate in this “voluntary” prayer.
Empathy is asking the question, “How would I feel if the shoe were on the other foot?” We have a real empathy deficit in this country and it is growing. JE

Rabbi Charles L. Arian leads Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg, Maryland.


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