Court Battles

Supreme Court sides with high school coach who led prayer on football field

The Supreme Court’s conservatives ruled on Monday for a high school football coach who was reprimanded for leading postgame prayers on the football field’s 50-yard line.

The 6-3 decision marked a win for coach Joseph Kennedy in his dispute with the Seattle-area school district that placed him on paid leave for violating a policy that bars staff from encouraging students to engage in prayer.

“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic—whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority.

“The only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisal rested on a mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination,” he added.

The ruling was just the latest in a series of recent watershed opinions by the Supreme Court, the most monumental being the court’s 6-3 decision last week to overturn Roe v. Wade and eliminate the nearly 50-year-old federal right to abortion. Monday’s decision effectively erased a major 1971 ruling that conservatives have long criticized as fostering discrimination against religion.

Starting in 2008, Kennedy began kneeling on the school football field after games and engaging in brief prayer. Eventually, many of his players joined him, as did members of opposing teams. This continued without formal complaint for seven years until the school told Kennedy to stop. 

The coach went on to defy the school’s order and was placed on administrative leave. He later filed a lawsuit alleging the school violated his First Amendment speech and religious rights in disciplining him for what he depicted as a form of private religious expression. 

The school painted Kennedy as having led a prominent public demonstration of his religious beliefs on school grounds. His influential capacity as a coach, they argued, put pressure on the football team — including nonreligious players — to join in prayer or risk their playing time being cut. 

Justice Sotomayor, who last week accused the court’s conservatives of “dismantling” the separation of church and state, wrote a dissent that was joined by her two fellow liberal justices. In it, she again blasted the conservative majority’s opinion for further eroding the church-state barrier.

“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,” wrote Sotomayor, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

“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,” she continued.

Kennedy hailed his legal victory.

“This is just so awesome,” he said in a statement issued by the conservative Christian public interest group First Liberty Institute, which backed his case. “All I’ve ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys. I am incredibly grateful to the Supreme Court, my fantastic legal team, and everyone who has supported us. I thank God for answering our prayers and sustaining my family through this long battle.”

Legal experts said Monday’s decision brought a conclusive end to the landmark 1971 ruling in Lemon v. Kurtzman, a case that conservatives have long disfavored. The so-called “Lemon test” created a legal framework for gauging church-state separation under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause that critics have long argued is biased in favor of secularism and against religious interests.

“The court has made explicit what perhaps has been implicit for a while: that the Establishment Clause is not a justification for censoring religious speech in the name of avoiding endorsements,” said Richard Garnett, a professor at Notre Dame Law School.

Under the Lemon test, a law that faced an Establishment Clause challenge had to clear several hurdles to survive, including whether a reasonable observer would think the measure at issue signaled the government’s endorsement of religion.

“The majority said we’re no longer going to ask this question about hypothetical reasonable observers’ perceptions of endorsement,” Garnett said. “Instead, the focus is going to be, going forward, on whether a practice is consistent with history and tradition, and whether there’s coercion.”

The court’s decision Monday reverses lower court rulings. A federal district court in Washington had sided with the school, as did a three-judge panel of San Francisco-based federal appeals court, which prompted Kennedy’s ultimately successful appeal to the Supreme Court.

–Updated at 12:57 p.m.

Tags High School football Neil Gorsuch Prayer Religion Supreme Court

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