Supreme Court rules on high school football coach who prayed in midfield

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The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a Washington state school board discriminated against a former football coach when it disciplined him for postgame prayers amid ground, the latest High Court ruling favoring the protection of religious faith over concerns about the government’s endorsement of religion.

Judge Neil M. Gorsuch wrote for his fellow conservatives in the 6-to-3 decision, saying the prayers of Bremerton High School assistant coach Joseph Kennedy are protected by guarantees of free speech and exercise religion of the Constitution. He said the school board’s discipline of Kennedy was unjustified, even under the concern of violating the separation of Church and State.

“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 in speech or a bowed head,” Gorsuch wrote. “Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in brief, silent, and personal religious practice doubly protected” by the Constitution.

Gorsuch was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Amy Coney Barrett. Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh agreed with most of the opinion.

The three liberals on the court dissented, as they did in last week’s ruling that Maine cannot bar religious schools from receiving public tuition grants extended to other private schools.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the majority “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 between church and state, eroding religious freedom protections for all.

Joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan, Sotomayor added, “Today’s ruling is particularly wrong because it elevates the religious rights of a school official, who has voluntarily accepted public employment and the limitations that public employment involves, in relation to those of its pupils, who are required to attend school and whom this Court has long recognized as being particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection.

The Supreme Court takes up the case of a coach and his prayers on the 50-meter line

“This is a tremendous victory for Coach Kennedy and religious freedom for all Americans,” said Kelly Shackelford, president of the First Liberty Institute, which represented Kennedy. “Our Constitution protects the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including public prayer, without fear of dismissal.”

The band also offered a statement from Kennedy: “It’s so awesome. All I ever wanted was to be back in the field with my guys… I thank God for answering our prayers and supporting my family through this long battle.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represented the Bremerton School District, said Monday’s ruling “emptied decades of established law that protected students’ religious freedom.”

“Today, the court continued its assault on the separation of church and state, wrongly describing coercive prayer as ‘personal’ and preventing public schools from protecting the religious freedom of their students” , group president Rachel Laser said in a statement. “It is no coincidence that the erosion of the boundary between church and state has been accompanied by devastating losses to so many cherished rights. As that line has blurred, public education, reproductive rights, civil rights and more have come under attack.

The case has raised questions about the ability of officials to live out their faith and the government’s concurrent responsibility to protect students from coercion and remain neutral on the subject of religion. As in many recent Court cases, she called for an interpretation of how the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits government endorsement of religion, interacts with its freedom of speech clauses. and free exercise, which prohibit government restrictions on religious observance.

The Roberts court largely protected religious rights, and lawyers said the case was another opportunity to transform decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence that began 60 years ago with the warning that the government cannot not organize and promote prayer in public schools.

Supreme Court rules Maine cannot deny tuition aid to religious schools

The decision in Kennedy’s case wiped out religious rights this quarter.

Besides the Maine case, the court ruled that a death row inmate must have access to a spiritual advisor at the time of execution, and that Boston is not free to deny a Christian group’s request to do so. fly his flag at City Hall lest it appear to be an endorsement of religion if other groups had the privilege.

The Kennedy case pitted red states against blue states and some professional football players against others, divided constitutional experts and attracted more amicus curiae briefs than any Supreme Court case this quarter, except for controversies over abortion and gun control.

It also split the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, where a narrow majority of judges ruled for the school district. They cited Supreme Court precedent that limits the speech rights of on-duty public employees and said the district was justified in fearing that Kennedy’s authorization of public prayer would violate the Constitution’s ban on public prayer. government endorsement of religion.

Those who support the school district say Kennedy radically recast the events that led to his firing and that his actions during the 2015 football season were hardly private leaps of faith. Her Facebook post – “I think I may have been fired for praying” – captured national attention and garnered support from prominent advocates, including former President Donald Trump and Fox News pundits.

For years Kennedy knelt and bowed after games – and nothing came of it. But then some of the BHS Knights decided they would also pray. They invited players from opposing teams. There were prayers in the locker room and pictures of what looked like Kennedy praying while holding both teams’ helmets.

The school district decided there was a problem when an opposing coach told the Bremerton principal that he “thought it was pretty cool how [the district] would license “Kennedy’s religious activity,” he said in his memoir.

The return game was the highlight. Kennedy was joined in his postgame prayer by members of the public, a state legislator and the media. “Spectators jumped over the fence to reach the field and people tripped over wires and fell,” the district said in its brief. “The members of the school orchestra were knocked down.”

The following week, a group of Satanists demanded equal access to the land.

Eventually, Kennedy was suspended with pay. His contract was year-to-year, and for the first time he received a negative review and a recommendation not to be rehired. Kennedy sued to get her job back.

If the case divided Bremerton, a small town across the Puget Sound, from Seattle and the lower court judges who considered Kennedy’s lawsuit, the chasm was just as great in the Supreme Court. The majority and the dissenters had radically different views, even on the facts.

Gorsuch characterized Kennedy’s actions as simply offering a “silent prayer of thanks”.

“Mr. Kennedy prayed during a time when school employees were free to speak with a friend, call for a restaurant reservation, check email or attend to other personal matters. “, wrote Gorsuch. “He offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise busy.”

Sotomayor responded that Kennedy “made several media appearances to publicize his intention to pray at the 50-yard line, which led to an article in the Seattle News and a local television program about the upcoming game of return”. She included in her opinions photos of Kennedy holding football helmets aloft, surrounded by kneeling players from her team and opponents.

Gorsuch said governments could restrict employees’ right to speak if it appears they are speaking in an official capacity. But Gorsuch said that was not the case in Kennedy’s postgame prayers.

“He did not instruct players, discuss strategy, encourage better performance on the field or engage in any other discourse the district had paid him to produce as a coach,” wrote Gorsuch.

Governments cannot provide a “script” to their employees or prohibit any expression of faith. Otherwise, “a school could fire a Muslim teacher for wearing a headscarf in class or ban a Christian assistant from praying quietly during her lunch in the cafeteria”.

Gorsuch said Kennedy abandoned what had been a school tradition of locker room prayers and there was no evidence he coerced the players.

Sotomayor replied that it was not necessary. “Students face immense social pressure,” she writes. “Students see their teachers and coaches as role models and seek their approval. Students also depend on this endorsement for tangible benefits…from extra playing time to a stronger letter of recommendation to additional support in college athletic recruiting.

Lower courts, Gorsuch said, had relied on a test criticized by religious conservatives that calls on judges to consider whether government actions might appear to a reasonable observer to be an endorsement of religion.

This criterion originated from the 1971 court decision in Lemon vs. Kurtzman. But Gorsuch said in his view that “this Court has long since given up Lemon and its endorsement test offshoot.

Sotomayor again disagreed. She said Monday’s ruling reversed that precedent.

The case is Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.


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