WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday sided with a football coach from Washington state who sought to kneel and pray on the field after games.
The court ruled 6-3 for the coach with the court’s conservative justices in the majority and its liberals in dissent. The justices said the coach’s prayer was protected by the First Amendment.
“The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority.
Justices had to grapple with how to strike a balance between the religious freedoms and the speech rights of teachers, coaches, and the student rights to not be pressured to participate in religious practice. Some religious practices may be more acceptable in other schools.
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It is one of many Supreme Court rulings that has been favorable to religious plaintiffs. In another recent example, the court ruled that Maine can’t exclude religious schools from a program that offers tuition aid for private education, a decision that could ease religious organizations’ access to taxpayer money.
In a dissent in Monday, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the coach decision “sets us further down a perilous path in forcing states to entangle themselves with religion.” She was joined in her dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Elena Kagan.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the court ruled against the coach. In 2019, the court declined to take up the case at an early stage, but four of the court’s conservatives agreed that a lower court decision in favor of the school district was “troubling” for its “understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers.”
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Joseph Kennedy, who was an ex-football coach and Christian at Bremerton High School (Bremerton), Washington, was the defendant in this case. Kennedy was a coach at the school from 2008 to 2008. At first, he prayed on his own at the 50-yard mark at the conclusion of each game. Students began joining Kennedy and he started to give short inspirational talks with religious references. Kennedy continued to do this for many years, leading students in prayer sessions. He was being used by his school district in 2015 when he realized what he was doing and requested that he stop.
Kennedy stopped leading the students in prayer at the locker room, and continued to pray on the fields. However, he still wanted to lead them in prayer. Concerned about being sued for violating students’ religious freedom rights, the school asked him to stop his practice of kneeling and praying while still “on duty” as a coach after the game. Kennedy was allowed to pray in his own time before and after the game. The school placed him on paid leave after he refused to stop kneeling and praying on the court.
The court’s three justices were educated at public high school, while all the others attended Catholic schools.
Kennedy v. Bremerton school district, 21-418.
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