The Supreme Court of the United States has handed down a bevy of decisions in the past week, as it nears the end of its term and prepares to adjourn for summer recess.
The court’s latest decision, posted Monday morning, rules that a high school football coach was exercising a constitutional right in praying on the field after games, in a case that could erode the separation of church and state across the country.
The case centers on Joseph Kennedy, an assistant coach at a public high school in Bremerton, Washington, a small community outside of Seattle. For eight years, Kennedy would routinely pray at the 50-yard line immediately after games—often joined by student athletes, who would kneel at the field’s midway mark. After an opposing coach commented on the practice at one of these games, the Bremerton school district warned Kennedy not to pray if it would involve students. A clash followed over whether Kennedy obeyed, and his contract was not renewed for the following season.
Kennedy has claimed that the school district infringed upon his right to religious freedoms, as sanctioned by the “free speech” and “free exercise” clauses of the First Amendment.
However, the Supreme Court has historically rejected the open demonstration of prayer in public schools, in the interest of upholding a separation of church and state. In 2000, the court ruled that organized prayers before school football games broke the First Amendment’s clause forbidding government “establishment,” or encouragement, of any religion. In such instances, the majority wrote at the time, “the delivery of a pregame prayer has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship.”
In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the argument—and the Supreme Court’s verdict—ultimately boiled down to whether Kennedy’s actions could be categorized as “quiet personal prayer,” as Kennedy claimed. “Petitioner’s expression occurred while at work but during a time when a brief lull in his duties apparently gave him a few free moments to engage in private activities,” read Monday’s verdict, penned by the court’s conservative majority. “When he engaged in this expression, he acted in a purely private capacity.”
But the dissent, written by the court’s three liberal justices, painted a contrasting picture. “Kennedy’s practice evolved into postgame talks in which Kennedy would hold aloft student helmets and deliver speeches with ‘overtly religious references,’ which Kennedy described as prayers, while the players kneeled around him,” they wrote. Additionally, Kennedy asked opposing teams’ coaches and players to join in. The prayers—which took place center-field in front of crowds including other students and parents, and sometimes local politicians or television news crews—constituted a public display, they argued. And Kennedy’s stature as a leader, as well as the prominence of varsity football culture, could leave students feeling forced to participate—whether they wished to or not.
Monday’s decision continues the Supreme Court’s marathon of conservative victories, coming just months after the highest court in the land was swayed to a 6-3 conservative majority of justices. The new bench has already decided two of the most consequential cases of this era, regarding reproductive rights in 1973’s landmark Roe v. Wade, and gun rights in the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen. All three votes have been split along ideological lines.
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