The following My Word commentary by Rabbi Naomi Steinberg and Rev. Molly Cate appeared in the September 4 edition of the Eureka Times-Standard:
As religious leaders, we are appalled by the recent Supreme Court decision allowing a high school football coach in Washington State to lead conspicuous, coercive group prayer sessions on the football field. As our Congressman Jared Huffman commented, a radicalized court “took a wrecking ball to the critical separation of church and state, and with it the legitimacy of the highest court in the land.” The majority ruling upheld the coach’s claim that he was only indulging in moments of quiet, personal prayer on the football field. The court ignored the facts: the coach had a long history of gathering players, fans, politicians and press for a spectacle of group prayer. An internet search for photos and videos of “football coach prayers” brings up images of dozens of students in uniform kneeling around the coach, often surrounded by people taking pictures.
What about the young athlete who doesn’t want to pray with the crowd around the coach? Can that teenager simply break out of the huddle and walk away without humiliation, fear of retaliation, stigma or even injury?
We applaud Congressman Huffman for taking a strong stand against this alarming Supreme Court decision. Keep in mind that three of the six judges supporting the coach were appointed by Donald Trump. Mr. Trump is not a person known for his religious convictions, but with the help of Sen. Mitch McConell, Trump schemed to pack the court with justices whose extremist views do not represent the majority of Americans. Trump and his associates have deftly used religion as a tool to fire up a small but vocal minority in this country to attempt to consolidate control of state and national government in order to strip American citizens of long treasured rights. Just weeks before the prayer in school decision, the radical majority on the court imposed their religious views on the rest of us by depriving women and girls access to safe and legal abortions. Now some state legislatures are attempting to write into law the religious view that every fertilized egg is a person, and that the viability of a fertilized egg is more important than the health, dignity or life of a woman or girl.
Don’t be fooled. This so-called “religious” movement is not about bringing people closer to the Creator. This movement is not about love of one’s neighbor. This is a movement toward autocracy and authoritarianism, people in power taking more and more power away from the rest of us, depriving us of rights, forcing us to accept their beliefs, and lining the pockets of the super-rich and their minions.
In contrast to Trump and his enablers, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris follow their family faith traditions without fanfare, don’t impose their religious views on others, and don’t use religion to create discord in our country.
We agree with Congressman Huffman: “In America, Freedom of Religion includes the freedom to not participate in a religious community, and our children should have the ability to practice any religion – or none at all – without fear of retaliation or pressure. That freedom is methodically being stripped away by a radicalized court filled with religious extremists who are stopping at nothing to dismantle the fundamental rights our country has relied on for centuries.”
As members of Humboldt Interfaith Fellowship and True North Spiritual Leaders Caucus, we are people whose lives are guided by deep principles, hopes and visions. We revere spiritual traditions and at the same time, we respect the right of every person to decide their own destiny, to follow the dictates of their own conscience, and to find their way to the universal values of goodness, kindness and generosity without coercion.
We urge everyone who is eligible to vote to do so and elect decent, fair-minded, honest people who understand and revere the principles of our democracy and listen to the people who they represent. Let’s be grateful to live in California where we still have religious freedom.
Rabbi Naomi Steinberg serves Temple Beth El in Eureka and B’nai Ha-Aretz in Redway. Rev. Molly Cate serves Unity Church of the Redwoods and teaches in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.