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Supreme Court Can’t Seem To Stop — Rules Coach Can Stage Ostentatious Prayer On Field With Students

Supreme Court Can’t Seem To Stop — Rules Coach Can Stage Ostentatious Prayer On Field With Students

Despite popular propaganda, prayer has never been forbidden in public schools. The First Amendment protects the right to pray, anywhere. However, requiring students to join in was ruled unConstitutional, as it indicates state preference for a particular religion. Now the Supreme Court is blurring the lines around the edges of that ruling.

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 25: Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy takes a knee in front of the U.S. Supreme Court after his legal case, Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, was argued before the court on April 25, 2022 in Washington, DC. Kennedy was terminated from his job by Bremerton public school officials in 2015 after refusing to stop his on-field prayers after football games. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In 1962, Engele v. Vitale determined that even a voluntary prayer for students to join violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The court ruled that even if participation wasn’t required, the state shouldn’t be writing prayers for students to join. (Case details available at Oyez.)

However, the question has risen more than once about prayers on the periphery of this — for instance, a high school coach praying on the field while his football team huddles around him, but does not actively join in the prayer.

Now the new, Trump-curated far-right Supreme Court has ruled on the first of these cases to make it to them since their radical shift — and of course, they’ve decided exactly as evangelical extremists dictated.

ABC reports that the Justices, in an unsurprising 6-3 decision, have decided that a coach engaging in a sectarian prayer on the field, with his student athletes, is not a violation of the establishment clause.

The full 75-page opinion, including dissent, can be read here.

The majority opinion, by Justice Gorsuch, described the prayer as one done apart from students, a private prayer “while students were otherwise occupied,”and called a ruling against that “censorship.”

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Joseph Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach because he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet prayer of thanks. Mr. Kennedy prayed during a period when school employees were free to speak with a
friend, call for a reservation at a restaurant, check email, or attend to other personal matters. He offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied. Still, the Bremerton School District disciplined him anyway. It did so because it thought anything less could lead a reasonable observer to conclude (mistakenly) that it endorsed Mr.
Kennedy’s religious beliefs. That reasoning was misguided. Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor. The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.

The dissent, by Justice Sotomeyer, described it differently.

Today, the Court once again weakens the backstop. It elevates one individual’s interest in personal religious exercise, in the exact time and place of that individual’s choosing, over society’s interest in protecting the separation between church and state, eroding the protections for religious liberty for all. Today’s decision is particularly misguided because it elevates the religious rights of a school official, who voluntarily accepted public employment and the limits that public employment entails, over those of his students, who are required to attend school and who this court has long recognized are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection. In doing so, 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.

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