The Supreme Court has been accused of “inviting religion into the classroom” after it said a high school football coach had the right to pray on the touchline.
Coming just days after the top court had overturned Roe v Wade, the landmark decision that had ensured two generations of women had a consitutional right to safe and legal abortions, it on Monday expanded the religious rights of government employees by ruling in favour of a Christian former public high school football coach in Washington state who had sued after being suspended from his job for refusing to stop leading prayers with players on the field after games.
While the decision was cheered by the coach, Joseph Kennedy, who claimed he wanted to retake the position from which he was fired and those who thought his first amendment rights had been abused, it was denounced by those who said the court had started to erode the traditional separartion of church and state.
Some parents at the school said students had felt pressured to pray with the coach.
“No one should be pressured to pray at school – this can be a harmful use of power, especially for girls and LGBTQ students,” said Sunu Chandy, legal director of the National Women’s Law Centre.
Paul Peterson, 53, an engineer who lives in Bremerton, where one of this five children was coached briefly Mr Kennedy, told The Independent, he was “disappointed”, but not suprised by the judgement.
“This is just one more piece of their approach to try to push us back to the 1800s,” he said of the conservative court.
He also questioned whether Mr Kennedy, who he used to work with at the city shipyard, would actually wish to return and take up his position – the court ordered him to be reinstated – given he had moved to Florida. The city of Bremerton has a population of around 30,000, and its economy and culture has long influenced by the US naval base it is home to.
“I would be shocked if he did. This is all about money and fame, and the attempt by the religious right to change the course of this country. “
David Neiwert, author of Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us, said: “I guess we’ve been too preoccupied with SCOTUS’s [Supreme Court of the United States] dismantling of women’s reproductive rights to notice that it also is dismantling the wall of separation between church and state.”
Rachel Laser, the CEO of the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), which had represented Bremerton School District in the case against Mr Kennedy, said: “The Supreme Court just invited coercive prayer into public schools by ruling that Bremerton School District – a public school system – cannot stop a coach from conducting public prayers with his team at team huddle.”
She added: “[It is a] a huge blow to church-state separation.”
Later at a virtual press event, Ms Laser was asked what might have been the outcome had Mr Kennedy sought to enage in a Muslim prayer on the edge of the sports field.
“Had Coach Kennedy engaged in Muslim prayer - and the key here is that pressured students to join right in a time and place that pressured students to join - there would be absolutely no tolerance for that exercise of religion,” she said.
Richard Katskee, AU’s legal director said the quetion got the point that there was “something deeply fishy about what the court has been up to”.
“What that is, is that it respect and protect only particular religious views,” he said. “When when the court heard the case challenging Donald Trump's Muslim ban, it wasn't the least bit interested in protecting the rights of people of minority faiths.”
The ruling in the case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, rejected the local school district’s concerns that in a public school setting Mr Kennedy’s prayers and Christian-infused speeches could be seen as coercive to students or a governmental endorsement of a particular religion in violation of the first amendment’s so-called establishment clause.
The Supreme Court held that Mr Kennedy’s actions were protected by his own rights under the first amendment, which protects free speech and religious expression.
“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse republic – whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head,” Mr Gorsuch wrote.
The justices overturned a lower court’s ruling siding with the school district, which suspended Mr Kennedy in 2015 after he repeatedly defied directions from officials to stop the post-game prayers while on duty and rebuffed their offers for him to use private locations in the school as an alternative.
The ruling by the court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority as a result of the appointment of three justices nominated by Donald Trump, follows last Friday’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, the landmark judgement that had guaranteed a woman’s right to abortion for almost 50 years.
In a dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote: “This case is about whether a public school must permit a school official to kneel, bow his head, and say a prayer at the center of a school event. The Constitution does not authorise, let alone require, public schools to embrace this conduct.”
She added: “Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents.“
The ruling was welcomed by the group that had supported Mr Kennedy in the case in the Bremerton School District, located in the greater Seattle area.
Mr Kennedy said: “This is just so awesome. All I’ve ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys.”
“This is a tremendous victory for coach Kennedy and religious liberty for all Americans,” said Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty.
“Our constitution protects the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired. We are grateful that the Supreme Court recognised what the constitution and law have always said Americans are free to live out their faith in public.”
Mike Pompeo, a fundamental Christian who was Mr Trump’s CIA director, said on Twitter: “Our right to pray – anytime and anywhere – is fundamental. That right was affirmed today at our highest court in the Kennedy v Bremerton decision. I am excited to build on this victory and continue securing our inalienable right to religious freedom.”
But in Washington state, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the decision would send a very bad message.
“The freedom to hold beliefs that differ from those with authority has been a founding principle of our country. It is disappointing that today’s decision erodes protections for public school students to learn and grow free of coercion,” said ACLU lawyer Taryn Darling.
“Kitsap county is a religiously diverse community and students reported they felt coerced to pray. One player explained he participated against his own beliefs for the fear of losing playing time if he declined.”
Additional reporting by Reuters
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