Supreme Court rules school district can’t ban football coaches’ prayers on the field

The opinion was 6 to 3 along conservative-liberal ideological lines.

“The Constitution and the best of our traditions advise mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and repression, for religious and non-religious views,” Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.

The decision lowers the bar between church and state in a notice that will allow for greater religious expression in public spaces. The court clarified that a government entity does not necessarily violate the Establishment Clause by allowing religious expression in public.

“We are unaware of any historically sound understanding of the Establishment Clause that begins to ‘(make) it necessary for the government to be hostile to religion’ in this way,” Gorsuch wrote.

The Establishment Clause of the Constitution states that Congress cannot “make any law respecting the establishment of any religion or interdicting the free exercise thereof”.

Kennedy welcomed the court’s decision in a statement Monday, saying, “All I ever wanted was to be back on the court with my guys.”

“I thank God for answering our prayers and supporting my family through this long battle,” he said.

The decision continues the trend of a right-wing court that has repeatedly sided with religious conservatives in recent years. Last week, the court said Maine could not exclude religious schools from tuition assistance programs in a 6-3 decision split on ideological grounds.

“Today’s ruling is the second major expansion of constitutional protections for religion in six days,” said Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law.

“Last week, the court made it harder for states to deny funding for religious education. Today, the court is making it harder for secular schools to keep religion out of extracurricular activities, like the high school football. In the name of defending religious exercise, the court’s conservative majority struck down the First Amendment’s other reference to religion — its prohibition against state sanction.”

Judge Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the three liberal dissenters, said the court is “weakening” the Establishment Clause’s “backstop” protecting religious freedom.

“It elevates an individual’s interest in personal religious exercise, at the exact time and place of his choosing, above society’s interest in protecting the separation of church and state, eroding religious freedom protections for all,” Sotomayor wrote.

“Audible prayers” on the pitch

Kennedy began his prayer ritual shortly after he was hired in 2008, but the school district grew concerned when Kennedy’s short, silent prayers increased in 2015 as players began joining him on the field as the crowd was still in the stands.

The school district said it never stopped him from offering silent, private prayers and offered him another place to pray off the football field after games. Kennedy refused the accommodations and was eventually placed on paid administrative leave and suspended from the program. After the season, he received a poor performance review.

He did not seek a new contract, but instead sued, arguing that the school district violated his First Amendment rights. Kennedy lost his case at the district court level and in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that his prayer amounted to government speech that is not protected by the First Amendment.
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Ahead of the closing arguments in April, Kennedy told CNN in an interview that “every American should be able to trust the public and not fear being fired for it.” Kennedy, who is a Christian, said his prayers were meant to fulfill a covenant he made to praise God after every game, “win or lose”.

Lawyers for the school district had argued in court that Kennedy’s prayer practice was not a private or personal prayer, but rather a ritual undertaken in full view of students that the school district was justified in restricting.

“No one doubts that public school employees can say quiet prayers alone at work even though students can see,” Richard B. Katskee, an attorney for Americans United for Separation of Church and Culture, told judges. State.

But, Katskee said, that’s not what Kennedy was committed to. Instead, Katskee argued, Kennedy “insisted on audible prayers at the 50-yard line with the students … (and) advertised in the press that those prayers are how he helps these kids are from better people.”

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Katskee argued that even if the court considered Kennedy’s speech to be private, the school district had adequate justification for restricting it because officials are authorized to “prevent disruption and maintain control over school events.” Katskee gave the example that a Satanist group had come forward to demand the same access to the football field.

Notre Dame Law School professor Richard W. Garnett, who wrote a friend of the court brief supporting Kennedy, said on Monday the High Court’s decision will “bring much needed clarity and consistency” to an area of the law which was “notoriously confusing and inconsistent.”

“The Establishment Clause is about the entanglement of governmental and religious authority,” he said, adding, “It does not require censorship of private religious expression.”

Judges differ on whether players were coerced

In his majority opinion, Gorsuch differentiated the case from earlier cases, pushing back against the idea that the opinion would lead to more school prayer.

He said the prayers in question “were not publicly broadcast or recited before a captive audience. Students were not required or expected to participate.”

Gorsuch added that students “were not required or expected to participate”, dismissing concerns from some parents that students might feel “coerced”.

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And he limited the discussion to three prayers instead of a broader model of coaching conduct.

“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic – whether those expressions take place in sanctuary or on land, and whether they are manifested through speech or a bowed head,” Gorsuch wrote. .

Sotomayor’s dissent, which included photographs of the prayers in question, suggested that she believed the majority did not accurately describe the factual circumstances of the case.

“As the majority says, Kennedy, a coach in the district football program, ‘lost his job’ to ‘(pray) quietly while his students were otherwise busy,'” she wrote. “The case before us, however, tells a different story.”

His dissent also pointed out that the school district tried to accommodate the coach by offering him a place to pray, off the field. “Once again, the District emphasized that it was pleased to accommodate Kennedy’s desire to pray at work in a manner that does not interfere with her duties or the perceived risk of approval,” it said. she stated.

She said it was “unprecedented” for the court to find that Kennedy’s conduct, “taken as a whole, did not raise known issues” of coercion.

Sotomayor pointed out that students might have felt coerced into joining in the prayers and pointed to the fact that the court in the past has “recognized that students face immense social pressure.”

She said they look up to their teachers and coaches as role models and “seek their approval” and that players might try to get a coach’s endorsement to get a stronger letter of recommendation for college recruiting or higher. playing time on the field. “The record before the Court confirms this,” she wrote.

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Already, such concerns have been raised by the National Education Association, the main national union for teachers, which said on Monday that majority opinion would open the door to coercive prayer in schools.

“The Constitution should protect public school students from being coerced into religious activities,” NEA President Becky Pringle said in a statement. “The court’s decision here does the opposite: it ignores the real pressure and coercion that students will feel when school officials hold public religious observances in the classroom or at school events.”

This story was updated with additional details on Monday.

Denise W. Whigham