What the Supreme Court's football coach ruling means for schools and prayer

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(The Hill) — The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on Monday in support of a high school football coach who knelt on the 50-yard line and prayed after games, paving the way for a new landscape concerning the role of religion in public schools.

The court’s conservative majority sided with Joseph Kennedy and against the Bremerton School District in Seattle, Wash., agreeing that the coach’s First Amendment rights were violated when the district placed him on leave for violating a policy prohibiting staff from encouraging students to engage in prayer.

Kennedy celebrated the win, telling Fox News’s “The Faulkner Focus” that he “can’t stop smiling.”

“It just feels good to know that the First Amendment is alive and well,” he said.

The ruling contrasts with two precedents the Supreme Court issued in the 20th century that prohibited school-sanctioned prayers in the classroom and the reading of the Bible in public schools as part of the wall between church and state.

It also brings an end to the 1971 precedent Lemon v. Kurtzman, which created a test to gauge church-state separation policies in public schools. That case has been scorned by conservatives as biased against religious interests.

Courts have long used those precedents to rule on similar cases, so the Supreme Court’s ruling is likely to launch a pathway for new religious policies in public schools.

In her dissent, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued Monday’s ruling sets a new precedent that “elevates one individual’s interest in personal religious exercise, in the exact time and place of that individual’s choosing, over society’s interest in protecting the separation between church and state.”

“Today’s decision is particularly misguided because it elevates the religious rights of a school official, who voluntarily accepted public employment and the limits that public employment entails, over those of his students, who are required to attend school and who this Court has long recognized are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection,” she added in an opinion backed by liberal Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

The concept of separation between church and state is embedded in the establishment clause in the Bill of Rights, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Before 1962, however, dozens of states enforced religious policies in public schools, and some even required the Bible to be read in classrooms.

The Supreme Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale in 1962 for the first time that states cannot recite prayers in schools, arguing it was a violation of the establishment clause. A year later, the high court ruled in School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp that state officials also cannot read the Bible or recite the Lord’s Prayer in classrooms.

After Lemon v. Kurtzman in 1971, states were required to follow a three-pronged test when enacting statutes and policies in schools involving religion. Chief Justice Warren Burger’s test forced states to ensure policies have a secular legislative purpose, don’t promote or inhibit religion and don’t involve “excessive government entanglement with religion.”

Monday’s ruling effectively overrules the Lemon v. Kurtzman test.

It does not overrule Engel v. Vitale or School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp, but states could use the new Supreme Court precedent to apply policies similar to the coach’s prayer movement.

The conservative court’s ruling also signals a movement toward less restrictions between church and state overall, according to Jeffrey Toobin, the chief legal analyst for CNN.

“This is a case where they are moving the law, incrementally, in a very clear direction to allow more state involvement in religion,” Toobin said on Monday. “It can be with regard to prayers in schools, it can be in regard to money going into religious organizations or to exempt religious organizations from government mandates.”

In the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the coach grappled with the school district over how pronounced his prayers were in influencing students.

Kennedy began kneeling and praying on the football field after school games in 2008, over time attracting more and more students to do so with him. The school district eventually told Kennedy to stop. When the coach defied their orders, officials placed him on administrative leave.

Kennedy filed a lawsuit, arguing his rights to free speech and religion were violated by the policy. The school district said the coach led a public demonstration of government-endorsed religion and that students were pressured to pray with Kennedy because they might risk losing play time.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the majority, said the Bremerton School District allowed secular speech but not religious speech on school grounds, which he called a form of “discrimination” that the Constitution “neither mandates nor tolerates.”

“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic—whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head,” Gorsuch wrote.

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