Joe Kennedy, a coach at Bremerton High School, began praying on the field during school events. The Washington State public school district warned him several times to stop the public prayers because it feared that Kennedy’s actions violated the Constitution’s ban on government Establishment of Religion.
Eventually, Kennedy lost his job, and sued the district. The case, Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, ultimately went to the Supreme Court. In a clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the SCOTUS ruled in favor of Kennedy.
The rationale for the SCOTUS ruling is that Kennedy’s actions are protected by freedom of speech. As Scott Shackford reports for Reason,
In a 6–3 decision, the Court determined that Joseph Kennedy, a former assistant coach at Bremerton High School in Washington state, was within his First Amendment rights and not acting in his capacity as a school official when he prayed on the 50-yard line at football games and permitted others (including students) to join him. As such, Kennedy was not causing the school to violate the Establishment Clause and endorse a particular religion.
The majority decision for Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Amy Coney Barrett, and Brett Kavanaugh, leans heavily on evidence and statements that no student was coerced or ever said they felt coerced to participate in these postgame prayers. Gorsuch observes that it doesn't appear that the method that Kennedy engaged in prayer caused anybody to feel as though he were pushing his religion on students as a coach
But Justice Sonya Sotomayor easily demolishes this argument. As The MORNING DISPATCH reported on 7/6/22:
In her dissent, Sotomayor argued that context—much of which was absent from Gorsuch’s majority opinion—was necessary to reach the correct conclusion in the case. “Properly understood, this case is not about the limits on an individual’s ability to engage in private prayer at work,” she wrote. “This case is about whether a school district is required to allow one of its employees to incorporate a public, communicative display of the employee’s personal religious beliefs into a school event, where that display is recognizable as part of a longstanding practice of the employee ministering religion to students as the public watched.”
Sotomayor’s dissent also focused on the power dynamics at play in the situation at hand. “Students face immense social pressure,” she wrote, even if they aren’t pushed to join prayers or punished for skipping them. “Students look up to their teachers and coaches as role models and seek their approval. Students also depend on this approval for tangible benefits … from extra playing time to a stronger letter of recommendation to additional support in college athletic recruiting.”
I would add that, among those tangible benefits is grades. It’s easy to see that a student may fear lower grades if she doesn’t go along with her teacher’s religious exercise. Regardless of whether there is any overt evidence in this particular case of a student being punished for not participating, the power that teachers have over students’ educational outcomes can easily foster covert forms of punishment, or fear thereof.
Here are my FB comments that accompanied my share of Supreme Court rules for coach whose prayers on field raised church-state questions. Quoting from the article, I wrote:
"The 6-3 decision is a victory for those who seek a larger role for prayer and religion in public schools."
And it is a terrible defeat for freedom of conscience and religious liberty.
For the 2nd time in a week, the SCOTUS shredded the Constitution*, demonstrating once again the Conservatives' willingness to ignore the clear language of the Constitution when it suits their purposes.
Unlike the recent decision which affirmed the right of a Maine parent acting as a private citizen to choose a private religious school with her child's allotted education tax dollars, this incident involved a government employee acting in his official capacity at a government school function of a government school.
This is not a freedom of religion or freedom of speech issue, as the Conservative majority imagines. It is neither. The Conservative majority flippantly brushed aside the very first line of the First Amendment, which explicitly protects us FROM religion—"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion". This coach didn't privately pray. He made it a public demonstration, at a public school event, as a public school employee, thus implying the imprimatur of the state and carrying the power of a law sanctioning an establishment of religion.
There is no conflict among the first 3 phrases of the First Amendment—"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech . . ."—when you draw a bright line between government and private function. Of course, the root of the problem is government schooling. These conflicts would vanish if we amended the First Amendment to add "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of education, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" and privatized all public schools—the complete Separation of Education and State.