Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on April 23, 2021. The court ruled 6-3 in favor of a Washington state football coach who said he had the right to pray on the field after football games. File Photo by Erin Schaff/UPI | License Photo
June 27 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a Washington state school district violated the First Amendment rights of a football coach when he was disciplined after praying on the field after games.
Joseph Kennedy had been fired by the Bremerton School District for refusing a request to stop praying at the 50-yard line after its high school football games. He was often joined by many of his players during the prayer but drew the ire of school officials concerned that it violated the establishment clause in the First Amendment, which requires the separation of church and state.
The justices, though, ruled 6-3 along ideological lines. Justice Neil Gorsuch said in his opinion that the school district's concerns were "misguided."
"Mr. Kennedy prayed during a period when school employees were free to speak with a friend, call for a reservation at a restaurant, check email, or attend to other personal matters," Gorsuch wrote. "He offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied. Still, the Bremerton School District disciplined him anyway.
"Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First 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."
In dissent, Justice Sotomayor disagreed with the majority, which called the prayers private, saying Kennedy intentionally prayed among players and even invited others to join him.
"While the court reaffirms that the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from coercing participation in religious exercise, it applies a nearly toothless version of the coercion analysis, failing to acknowledge the unique pressures faced by students when participating in school-sponsored activities," Sotomayor wrote.
"This decision does a disservice to schools and the young citizens they serve, as well as to our nation's longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state."
Kennedy had lost at the federal district level and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where the courts cited a Supreme Court precedent limiting the speech rights of on-duty public employees.
American Atheist, the nonprofit that has long fought for the separation of church and state, criticized the decision.
"The Supreme Court just opened the door for coercive prayer to return to our schools. It shows just how far toward theocracy we've slid in recent years," said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. "Giving coaches, teachers, and other authority figures the green light to engage in the sort of coercive prayer at issue here is nothing less than an outright assault on the religious freedom of young people by this out-of-control Court."
Former White House press secretary under Donald Trump Kayleigh McEnany praised the decision.
"A huge victory at the Supreme Court for religious freedom and Coach Kennedy, who merely knelt in silent prayer on the 50-yard line after a football game. [The First Liberty Institute] has been fighting this case for years and today they have a hard-earned victory for all people of faith," she said on Twitter.
The decision was the court's latest involving religion in schools. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that state programs that provide money for public school tuition cannot exclude schools that offer religious instruction.