Teachers and coaches have tremendous authority over students and vast power over students’ experiences. They assign students’ grades, decide whether they get playing time, write college recommendations, and can make or break their shot at an athletic scholarship. Students know that refusing to join a teacher or coach in prayer could jeopardize any or all of these things. In this case, parents reported that students participated in the coach’s prayers—in violation of their own consciences—to make sure that they retained playing time and because they “did not wish to separate themselves from the team.”
The coach says he never told students they had to pray with him. But even if that disputed account is accurate, teachers and coaches leading a prayer don’t have to state affirmatively that participation is required to make the students understand that it is. As Justice Anthony Kennedy observed in Lee v. Weisman: “This pressure, though subtle and indirect, can be as real as any overt compulsion. . . . For the dissenter of high school age, who has a reasonable perception that she is being forced by the State to pray in a manner her conscience will not allow, the injury is no less real.”
School-sponsored prayer makes some students feel like outsiders. And it forces these students to open themselves up to judgment from their classmates, becoming targets for bullying, harassment and social ostracism.