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SCOTUS Has Ruled In Favor of the Coach Who Prayed at Public School Football Games

SCOTUS Has Ruled In Favor of the Coach Who Prayed at Public School Football Games

In what is decidedly not the biggest decision of this Supreme Court session but is certainly very important on its own terms, the Court has ruled in favor of a praying football coach. Conservative justices in the 6-3 majority said Joe Kennedy, who got in trouble with school officials for leading students in prayer at the 50-yard line after football games, is protected the free speech and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment.

It’a a win for Kennedy, the former assistant football coach of Bremerton High School in Washington, whose prayers were found to have represented official government speech by lower courts. The Supreme Court overruled those decisions, saying Kennedy’s prayers with students amounted to private religious expression.

“The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in the majority opinion. “Kennedy’s private religious exercise did not come close to crossing any line one might imagine separating protected private expression from impermissible government coercion.”

The school maintained that Kennedy had a right to pray with any players who wished to join, but could not do so at official public school functions, since that would be seen as a religious endorsement and violate the separation of church and state. Finally, the school superintendent placed Kennedy on administrative leave for refusing to follow school policy. He declined to re-apply for a new contract the following school year.

Kennedy then sued school officials, saying their ban on prayer violated his First Amendment right to free speech and the free exercise of religion. The school board disagrees, saying his prayers were not the private exercise of religion, but a public one that took place at an official event. The Supreme Court’s decision could go far beyond prayer at football games, blurring the line between the state and religious expression in a very different way than most lawyers currently understand it.

The dissent was written by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, who said “official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents.”

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