Supreme Court backs coach when praying on field after games

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court said Monday that a high school soccer coach who knelt and prayed on the field after the games were protected by the constitution, a decision opponents say would open the door for “much more compelling prayer” in public schools.

The court ruled 6-3 for the coach with the conservative judges in the majority and the liberals in dissidents. The case was the latest in a series of rulings for religious plaintiffs.

The case forced the judges to grapple with how to balance the religious and freedom of expression of teachers and coaches with the rights of students not to feel pressured to participate in religious practices. The outnumbered liberal judges said there was evidence that the prayers of Bremerton (Washington) High School Coach Joseph Kennedy at the 50-yard line had a coercive effect on students and allowed him to absorb his “personal religious beliefs.” at a school event”.

Dissent judge Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the decision “takes us further down a dangerous path by forcing states to get entangled in religion.”

But the majority judges stressed that the coach’s prayer came after the games were over and at a time when he was not responsible for the students and was free to do other things.

The coach and his lawyers from the First Liberty Institute, a Christian legal group, were among those who welcomed the decision. Kennedy said in an interview that his first reaction was one of pure joy.

“Like all my football games, I just threw my arms up, you know, touchdown,” he said. He described the seven years since the dispute began as tough on his family but “definitely worth it.”

Justice Neil Gorsuchwriting for the majority in the ruling, stated: “The Constitution and the best of our traditions advocate mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and oppression, of both religious and non-religious views.

Gorsuch noted that the coach “prayed during a time when school staff were free to talk to a friend, call for a restaurant reservation, check email, or take care of other personal matters” and “while his students do otherwise.” were busy”.

It would be wrong to treat everything public school teachers and coaches say and do as speech under government control, he wrote. If that were the case, “a school could fire a Muslim teacher for wearing a headscarf in class, or forbid a Christian assistant to pray quietly during her lunch in the cafeteria,” he wrote.

He concluded by writing: “Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic – whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or in a field, and whether they manifest themselves through the spoken word or a bowed head. .”

The decision continues a pattern in which the court has ruled in favor of religious plaintiffs. Last week, the court ruled that Maine cannot exclude religious schools of a program that provides educational aid for private education, a decision that could facilitate access to tax money for religious organizations.

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

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

Paul Clement, the attorney who argued the case on Kennedy’s behalf, said in a statement that the decision would allow the coach “finally to return to where he belongs — coaching football and quietly praying alone after the game.”

Kennedy now lives in Florida, and it was unclear when — or if — he would move back to Washington state for a part-time job that had paid him less than $5,000. He said in the interview that he is in Florida to help his father-in-law, but his family remains in Washington and it was never his intention to stay in Florida permanently. He said his lawyers and the school district needed to sort things out before he could start coaching again.

He started coaching at the school in 2008, initially praying only on the 50-yard line at the end of the games. Students began to join him and in time he began to give a short, inspiring talk with religious references. Kennedy did that 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 concerns that the district could face charges of violating students’ religious freedom rights.

He stopped leading students in prayer in the locker room and on the field, but wanted to continue kneeling and praying on the field after the games. The school asked him not to do this while he was still “on duty” as a coach after the games. When he continued, the school put him on paid leave. The varsity team’s head coach later advised that he should not be rehired, partly because he was not adhering to 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 constitutionally required separation. The school district said in a statement it had “followed the law and acted to protect the religious freedom of all students and their families”.

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

School district attorney Richard Katskee said it is studying the decision and considering next steps.

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

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