Supreme Court encourages coach to pray on the pitch after games

An American flag flies in front of the United States Supreme Court building, Monday, June 27, 2022, in Washington.  (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

An American flag flies in front of the United States Supreme Court building, Monday, June 27, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)


The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a high school football coach who sought to kneel and pray on the field after games was constitutionally protected, a decision that opponents say would open the door to ” much more coercive prayer” in public schools.

The court ruled 6-3 for the coach with the court’s conservative justices in a majority and his liberals dissenting. The case was the latest in a series of rulings involving religious plaintiffs.

The case has forced judges to struggle to balance the religious rights and free speech of teachers and coaches with the right of students not to feel pressured to participate in religious practices. Liberal minority justices said there was evidence Bremerton, Washington, high school coach Joseph Kennedy’s prayers at the 50-yard line had a coercive effect on students and allowed him to incorporate his “personal religious beliefs in a school event”.

Dissenting Judge Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the ruling “places us further down a perilous path in forcing states to entangle with religion.”

But the majority judges pointed out that the coach’s prayer came after the game was over and at a time when he was not responsible for the pupils and was free to do other things.

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

Gorsuch noted that the coach was “praying during a time when school employees were free to talk with a friend, call for a restaurant reservation, check email, or take care of things.” other personal matters” and “while his students were otherwise occupied”.

It would be wrong to treat everything public school teachers and coaches say and do as speech subject to government scrutiny, he wrote. If that were the case, “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,” he wrote.

He concluded by writing that: “Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic – whether these expressions take place in sanctuary or on land, and whether they are manifested in speech or in bowed head”.

The ruling continues a pattern in which the court ruled in favor of religious plaintiffs. Last week, the court ruled that Maine cannot exclude religious schools from a program that provides tuition assistance for private education, a decision that could make it easier for religious organizations to access education. taxpayers’ money.

Disagreeing, Sotomayor wrote on Monday that players “recognize that getting the coach’s approval can pay dividends big and small, from extra playing time to a stronger letter of recommendation to extra support. in college athletic recruiting. And she said “some students said they joined Kennedy’s prayer because they felt social pressure to follow their coach and teammates.”

Sotomayor was joined in her dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Elena Kagan.

The coach and his lawyers from the First Liberty Institute, a Christian legal group, were among those who applauded the decision. Paul Clement, the attorney who argued the case on Coach Kennedy’s behalf, said in a statement that the decision would allow the coach “to finally return to the place that belongs to him – coaching football and praying. quietly alone after the game”.

Kennedy, a Christian, said in a statement, “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.

School district attorneys noted that Kennedy had moved to Florida and said it was unclear if he really intended to return across the country to Washington state, where he had previously been. football coach at Bremerton High School.

Kennedy began coaching at the school in 2008 and initially prayed alone on the 50-yard line at the end of games. Students began to join him, and over time he began to deliver a short inspirational speech with religious references. Kennedy did this for years and also led students in locker room prayers. The school district learned of what he was doing in 2015 and asked him to stop over fears the district could be sued for violating students’ religious freedom rights.

Kennedy stopped leading students in prayer in the locker room and on the field, but wanted to continue kneeling and praying on the field himself after games. The school asked him not to while he was still “on duty” as a coach after the game. When he continued, the school put him on paid leave. The varsity team head coach later recommended that he not be rehired because, among other things, he failed to follow district policy.

In a statement, the Bremerton School District and its attorneys at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said the decision undermines the separation required by the Constitution. The school district said in a statement that it had “upheld the law and acted to protect the religious freedom of all students and their families.”

Rachel Laser, the director of Americans United, said the decision “opens the door to much more coercive prayer in our public schools” and undermines students’ religious freedom.

School district attorney Richard Katskee said he is reviewing the decision and considering his next steps.

Three justices on the court — Breyer, Kagan and Justice Samuel Alito — attended public high schools, while the other six attended Catholic schools.

The case is Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, 21-418.

Naomi C. Amerson