This continues to be a week of major decisions from the Supreme Court that bring shouts of both celebration and angst. On Monday, the Court sided with a former high school football coach who was fired for praying at the 50-yard line after games.
The Supreme Court ruled that his public prayers were protected as free speech and free exercise of religion.
The decision made by the justices was 6-3, and it is being considered a victory for those who want to see prayer and religion more accessible in public schools.
The newly appointed conservative justices put aside the thought that the Constitution mandates a strict separation between the church and the state. This has been the prevailing mindset in the court for decades. The Court agreed that students can not be required to pray or listen to a religious message, they upheld that private prayers at school are protected and should not be prohibited.
The coach at the center of this case, Joe Kennedy, began praying after the game as a personal expression. They were not official or promoting religion even though they eventually drew a large crowd.
In the 1st Amendment, the language protects freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion, and it prohibits the “establishment of religion.” The case, known as Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, looked at all three of these sections of the Amendment.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, “Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the 1st Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor. The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.”
Three of the Court’s liberals dissented in their opinion. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, “This case is about whether a public school must permit a school official to kneel, bow his head, and say a prayer at the center of a school event. The Constitution does not authorize, let alone require, public schools to embrace this conduct.”
She went on in her opinion to describe how the court has, since 1962, consistently said that officials in schools leading prayer were impermissible according to the Constitution.
The ruling saw emotion from both sides of the issue around the nation. Kelly Shackelford is the president of First Liberty Institute in Texas. They represented the coach in this case. She called the decision a “tremendous victory” for religious liberty for Americans.
But Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the decision was a great loss of religious freedom because it focused just on the “demands of far-right Christian extremists.”
Kennedy was an assistant coach with a yearly contract at Bremerton High School in Washington state. He began to pray at the end of games even though school officials warned him against the practice. But they became popular with many on the team joining him in prayer.
The coach was eventually suspended from the team and he took his fight to local media and sued the district for firing him in violation of his constitutional rights.
Coach Kennedy lost his case before a federal judge and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
But the Supreme Court was convinced that the coach’s prayers were private and personal and not public acts by a government employee.
Richard Garnett, a Notre Dame law professor, celebrated the court’s decision. He noted that the Establishment Clause is meant to be focused on the entanglement of governmental and religious authority. It is not meant to censure private religious expression.
There will be continued debate on this case across the nation, but for many, it is a new day of hope.