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What is happening
A high school football coach’s postgame prayers at the 50-yard line inspired a legal dispute that could prompt the Supreme Court to redraw the lines that dictate the types of are authorized by public school employees.
The First Amendment guarantees every American the right to freely practice their religion. It also prohibits the government from establishing a single religion. Sometimes these two rights come into conflict, raising a question the court has grappled with over decades: how much freedom should government employees have to exercise their own faith before their actions violate the rights. citizens not to have a religion imposed on them? by the state?
Generally, the court ruled in favor of limiting the expression of public employees in order to prevent the government from promoting one religion over another. This is why, for example, teachers are not allowed to lead prayers in public schools, even if they are voluntary.
But late last month, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case involving , a former assistant football coach at a public high school in Bremerton, Washington. During his eight years as coach, Kennedy regularly prayed in midfield after games – often with players joining him. The local school district became aware of the practice in 2015 and ordered it to stop, saying it violated the separation of church and state.
Kennedy continued to pray after games. He also retained the services of lawyers and made repeated appearances in the media to promote his . The extra attention eventually created a spectacle that culminated in a dangerous “rush” of people rushing onto the pitch after Bremerton’s return game. Kennedy was placed on administrative leave two weeks later for defying district orders. His contract was not renewed for the following season.
Why there is debate
Lower courts ruled against Kennedy on the basis that the school district had a compelling interest in preventing him from promoting a particular religion while working as a government agent. But conservative Supreme Court justices appeared more sympathetic to the argument that Kennedy’s right to free speech had been violated, legal experts said.
Proponents of Kennedy’s case say his midfield prayers were purely a personal expression of his faith and in no way an official endorsement of religion by a government employee. They point out that he never asked players to participate and first prayed by himself before players chose to join him. In their view, denying Kennedy the ability to perform a simple, noncoercive leap of faith represents a clear violation of his freedom to express his religion, as stated in the First Amendment. Others take a broader view, arguing that beyond this specific case, the law is far too restrictive on the right of government employees to practice their personal faith.
Critics argue that it is inaccurate to say that Kennedy’s prayers were entirely personal, given the attention he deliberately invited into the ritual and his refusal to accept accommodations that would have allowed him to pray in private. . They also argue that even though Kennedy never asked the players to join him, his position as an authority figure created pressure for them to comply for fear they would fall out of favor or be seen as an outcast by their teammates. Some left-leaning legal analysts believe that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, which has shown a tendency to favor religious freedom over other rights in recent cases, may be keen to overturn past rulings on prayer in the schools and to create more room for explicit endorsements of a single faith — namely, Christianity — by school employees.
Most pundits expect the court to side in favor of Kennedy, but the significance of the decision will largely depend on the scope of their decision. A narrow ruling might produce only a small exclusion for actions similar to Kennedy’s postgame prayers. A more sweeping move could fundamentally rewrite laws on religious practice in schools and give teachers, staff and coaches far more leeway to openly express their faith in the classroom and on the pitch.
School employees are people, not just government agents
“Combine a doctrine that denies teachers freedom in their teaching with a school district that declares that virtually all public speech in school is professional and not personal, and you create a legal environment that treats teachers as pure instruments of expression of the state, required to spout only state-approved ideas from the time they enter campus until the time they leave. —David French,
Young players, not Kennedy, are the ones who had their religious freedom violated
“Teachers, coaches, administrators, counselors, office staff and even volunteers already have the right to pray while on duty and to wear jewelry or religious clothing. What believers in government service should not do is violate the religious freedoms of their constituents by using the authority of their position to pressure students to pray. —David Williamson,
When rights conflict, religious freedom must take precedence
“Americans of all political identities may disagree on many cultural touchstones, but the majority of us, even as we have become more secular as a society, have always viewed religious freedoms as our societal cement and one of the foundations of our exceptionalism. — Salena Zito,
Kennedy’s prayers were far from a solitary expression of faith
“Photographic evidence shows that once Kennedy made a cause celebre, he was joined on the field by players and fans, some of the latter in a stampede that injured a number of bystanders. I would say that turning the post-game handshake ceremony into a raucous rebirth is way over the line. You may disagree. —Marc Silk,
It is nonsense to claim that Kennedy was acting on behalf of the government
“The idea that allowing Kennedy to pray would amount to official endorsement of religion, which the panel convinced, strikes me as implausible. The test of endorsement asks whether an objective observer, familiar with the context, would think that the government action signals favor or support for religion…. Surely someone who knew the whole story would accurately understand that the school district greatly disapproved of Kennedy’s conduct and that the last thing they wanted was for Kennedy to continue to pray in public.—Mark Movsesian,
Court ready to let public employees preach openly while on the job
“While the weight of established law should crush Kennedy’s case, the biggest open question in Kennedy is quite possibly how much leeway the Court will allow public school teachers and coaches to preach their religious beliefs to their students. .” —Ian Millhiser
It is reasonable to open up a small amount of space to allow for a simple act of worship
“While the Tory majority appeared on Monday to be broadly supportive of the coach, the judges thankfully did not seem at all ready to craft a decision that would overturn the so-called Establishment Clause. A narrow and focused decision would seem to be in order. — Editorial,
The case is part of a much wider movement to impose Christian values in public spaces
“The case erases the rights of children who wish to avoid religious coercion in school, instead focusing on the right of school officials to practice their religion in the performance of their official duties. It is the culmination of a decades-long battle to redefine government neutrality toward religion as unconstitutional discrimination against believers. And it is terribly likely that he will succeed. —Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern,
Kennedy’s outright ban on prayers was a major overreach by the school district
“If there are legitimate concerns that a teacher’s or coach’s constitutionally protected religious activity could subject students to religious coercion, there are certainly ways for a school district to address those concerns. without violating the Constitution.” —Ed Whelan,
Kennedy enjoys sympathies that non-Christians would probably never enjoy
“We are talking about Christians here. If you think conservative judges would have the same sympathy for a coach using a school event to hold Muslim or Hindu prayers, you don’t know much about this court. —Paul Waldman
The precedents on religious discourse are so complicated that it is difficult to know where this case should fit
“On the surface, the question is simple: can the coach of the public high school kneel and pray in silence on the 50-yard line after games? But the doctrine that the court has created over the years is so complicated and confused that you would struggle to make sense of the debates without a First Amendment law course under your belt.—Noah Feldman,
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