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Supreme Court rules high school football coach had constitutional right to pray on field

Dissenting justices say the court’s conservative majority is on a ‘perilous path in forcing states to entangle themselves with religion, with all of our rights hanging in the balance’

Alex Woodward
New York
Monday 27 June 2022 17:36 BST
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The US Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority has ruled in favour of a high school football coach who gathered his team to pray at 50-yard lines after games, a case that could have wider impacts to First Amendment protections that prevent the government from imposing religious views.

A ruling on 27 June from Justice Neil Gorsuch argues that “there is no conflict between the constitutional commands of the First Amendment in this case” and only the “mere shadow” of a conflict, “a false choice premised on a misconstruction of the Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment that prohibits government intervention in religion.

”Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic,” according to the ruling. “Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance, based on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”

A dissent from Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor warns that the “court sets us further down a perilous path in forcing states to entangle themselves with religion, with all of our rights hanging in the balance.”

“Today’s decision is no victory for religious liberty,” wrote Justice Sotomayor.

The ruling marks a victory for Joseph Kennedy, who claimed that Washington state’s Bremerton School District violated his religious freedom after staff repeatedly asked him to move his prayer to somewhere less conspicuous, as to avoid the appearance of the school’s endorsement of a religious view.

Mr Kennedy joined the Bremerton High School varsity football team’s coaching staff in 2008. He was eventually placed on administrative leave after refusing the school’s accommodations for his public prayer. When his contract was up, he did not reapply after the 2015 football season.

Kennedy v Bremerton School District, represented by lawyers from the conservative First Liberty Institute, raised questions about government workers’ rights to free speech and their free exercise of religion against long-running precedent that prevents that speech from pressuring students and others to join.

Lower-court rulings rejected his argument and stated that he cannot claim First Amendment protections because he acted as a public employee while on the job.

His arguments prompted a series of filings in support of the school district from clergy and religious organisations, members of Congress, civil rights groups, teachers unions, school districts and public employees, and 13 state attorneys general, among others, to challenge his version of events, which a lower-court judge called a “false” and “deceitful narrative” that he was fired for his religious beliefs.

Mr Kennedy was never disciplined for his prayer; a judge in a lower court wrote that at the end of one game, the coach “prayed out loud in the middle of the football field” while “surrounded by players, members of the opposing team, parents, a local politician and members of the news media with television cameras recording the event, all of whom had been advised of Kennedy’s intended actions through the local news and social media.”

The coach argued that he was acting on his on behalf, not a representative of the public school, when he led his team in prayer.

But the district and students argued that, as the coach and authority figure among the children on the team, had effectively coerced them to participate.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an advocacy organisation that represented Bremerton at the Supreme Court, warned that the ruling invites “coercive prayer into public schools.”

First Liberty Institute, the powerful conservative legal group that supported Mr Kennedy in court, “distorted the facts as part of a coordinated effort by a shadow network of religious extremists and their political allies to undermine church-state separation,” according to Americans United.

First Liberty hailed the decision as a “tremendous victory for Coach Kennedy and religious liberty for all Americans.”

Mr Kennedy now lives in Florida but has said that he would return to Washington state and try to get his old job back should the court rule in his favour.

The ruling, issued in the final days of the Supreme Court’s current term, comes just days after the court’s conservative majority struck down the constitutional right to abortion care, sparking international outrage and demands for federal protections for abortion rights. The ruling marked the first time the court has revoked a constitutional right.

In another recent 6-3 decision, the court ruled that the state of Maine cannot exclude private Christian schools from a taxpayer-funded school voucher programme that helps students attend private schools.

The decision from the conservative majority in the case of Carson v Makin could have wider implications for impacts to public schools and whether the government is obligated to support religious institutions on the same level as private ones.

In her dissent in that case, Justice Sotomayor wrote that the Supreme Court “continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build.”

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