Supreme Court rules on high school football coach who prayed in midfield

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The Supreme Court on Monday ruled for a former high school football coach who lost his job after leading midfielder’s postgame prayers, in the court’s latest ruling favoring the public exercise of faith over concerns about the government’s endorsement of religion.

Judge Neil M. Gorsuch wrote for his fellow conservatives in the 6-to-3 decision, saying Joseph Kennedy’s prayers are protected by the Constitution’s guarantees of free speech and free religious exercise and that the district’s actions education were not justified for fear of violation. the separation of Church and State.

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

Gorsuch said lower courts should no longer follow the “lemon test” criticized by religious conservatives, which called on judges to decide whether government action could be perceived by a reasonable observer as an endorsement of religion by the government.

His opinion did not expressly overrule the test that flowed from the court’s decision in Lemon vs. Kurtzman. But dissenting liberal justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan said that was the effect.

“This decision does a disservice to schools and the young citizens they serve, and to our nation’s longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state,” Sotomayor wrote. .

She added: “This Court has consistently recognized that school officials leading prayer are constitutionally prohibited. Authority-led prayer strikes at the heart of our constitutional protections for the religious freedom of students and their parents… The Court is now charting a different course.

The Supreme Court takes up the case of a coach and his prayers on the 50-meter line

Paul D. Clement, who argued Kennedy’s case in the Supreme Court for the First Liberty Institute, said, “After seven long years, Coach Kennedy can finally return to the place that belongs to him – coaching football and quietly praying alone after the game.”

The band also offered a statement from Kennedy: “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.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represented the Bremerton School District, said Monday’s ruling “emptied decades of established law that protected students’ religious freedom.”

“Today, the court continued its assault on the separation of church and state, wrongly describing coercive prayer as ‘personal’ and preventing public schools from protecting the religious freedom of their students” , group president Rachel Laser said in a statement. “It is no coincidence that the erosion of the boundary between church and state has been accompanied by devastating losses to so many cherished rights. As that line has blurred, public education, reproductive rights, civil rights and more have come under attack.

The case has raised questions about the ability of officials to live out their faith and the government’s concurrent responsibility to protect school children from coercion and to remain neutral on the subject of religion. As in many recent court cases, she called for an interpretation of how the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits government endorsement of religion, interacts with its freedom of speech clauses. and free exercise, which prohibit government restrictions on the private observance of religion.

The Roberts court has recently been extremely protective of religious rights, and lawyers said the case is another opportunity to transform decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence that began 60 years ago with the warning that the government cannot organize and promote prayer in public schools.

Supreme Court rules Maine cannot deny tuition aid to religious schools

The decision in Kennedy’s case wiped out religious rights this quarter. Last week, the court ruled that Maine could not bar religious schools from receiving public tuition grants extended to other private schools.

He also ruled that a death row inmate must have access to a spiritual advisor at the time of execution, and that Boston is not free to deny a Christian group’s request to fly its flag at the hotel. of town lest it appear to be an endorsement of religion, if other groups have the privilege.

The case of Kennedy, an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington state, has pitted red states against blue states and some professional footballers against others, divided constitutional experts and drawn more briefs from friends of the court that any case in the Supreme Court that term, with the exception of controversies over abortion and gun control.

It also split the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, where a narrow majority of judges ruled for the school district. They cited Supreme Court precedent that limits the speech rights of serving public employees and said the district was justified in fearing that allowing Kennedy’s public prayer would violate the constitution’s ban on approving the religion by the government.

Those who support the school district say Kennedy radically recast the events that led to his firing and that his actions during the 2015 football season were hardly private leaps of faith. Her Facebook post – “I think I may have been fired for praying” – captured national attention and garnered support from prominent advocates, including former President Donald Trump and Fox News pundits.

But district supporters say Kennedy’s rights are no more important than those of students and parents who do not want to mix religion and schooling.

For years, Kennedy knelt and bowed after games, and nothing came of it. From the stands, it might have looked like nothing more than someone tying a shoe. But then some of the Knights decided they would also pray. And they invited players from opposing teams. There were prayers in the locker room and pictures of what looked like Kennedy praying while holding both teams’ helmets.

The school district decided there was a problem in the 2015 season, when an opposing coach told the Bremerton principal that he “thought it was pretty cool to see how [the District] would permit “Kennedy’s religious activity,” the district said in its brief.

The return game was the highlight. Kennedy was joined in his postgame prayer by members of the public, a state legislator and the media. “Spectators jumped over the fence to reach the field and people tripped over wires and fell,” the district said in its brief. “The members of the school orchestra were knocked down.”

The following week, a group of Satanists demanded equal access to the land.

Kennedy was represented by the First Liberty Institute, a conservative religious group that has taken other religious rights challenges to the Supreme Court.

As the legal battle dragged on, Kennedy and his wife retired, sold their home, and moved to Pensacola, Florida. The Bremerton School District, represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that should make the case moot because Kennedy is unlikely to return to Bremerton for a job that offers an annual stipend of just over $5,000.

But Kennedy told the Supreme Court in an affidavit that if he was allowed to return to his old job, “I can do so within 24 hours of his reinstatement.”

This is the fourth case in this term in which the court has considered religious rights. Earlier, he decided that a Texas death row inmate could be accompanied by a spiritual advisor who would play an active role in praying and comforting him at the time of his execution. He ruled for Maine parents who want to use state scholarships to send their children to religious schools. And he agreed with a Christian group that it was discrimination for Boston to ban its flag from flying in a town square, when other organizations were allowed.

Monday’s case is Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.

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