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Supreme Court rules for coach whose prayers on football field raised questions about church-state separation

The 6-3 decision is a symbolic victory for those who seek a larger role for prayers and religion in the public schools.

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Former Bremerton (Wash.) High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy answers questions after his legal case, Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, was argued before the Supreme Court on April 25 in Washington. Kennedy was terminated from his job by Bremerton public school officials in 2015 after refusing to stop his on-field prayers after football games. The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on Monday for Kennedy, declaring his public prayers were protected as free speech.
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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Monday for a former high school football coach whose prayers at the 50-yard line drew crowds and controversy, declaring his public prayers were protected as free speech.

The 6-3 decision is a symbolic victory for those who seek a larger role for prayers and religion in public schools.

The court stressed that Coach Joe Kennedy’s prayers began as private and personal expression and were not official acts of promoting religion at school.

Writing for the majority, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said: “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. The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.”

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The court’s three liberals dissented.

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“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,” said Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Since 1962, “this court consistently has recognized that school officials leading prayer is constitutionally impermissible. Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents, as embodied in both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” Sotomayor said.

What began with the coach kneeling by himself on the 50-yard line became a highly publicized event in 2015 that drew a crowd of players and spectators onto the field at the end of games.

Kennedy was an assistant coach on a yearly contract at Bremerton High School in Washington state when he began to pray at the end of games. School officials warned him against continuing the prayers because they had become a public event. They said his prayers at schools could be seen as violating the Constitution’s ban on an “establishment of religion.”

Kennedy said he would “fight” the decision and took his case to the local media. He was suspended when he refused to follow the district’s guidance, and he was not rehired for the next year.

With the help of the Texas-based First Liberty Institute, he filed a suit against the school district contesting his dismissal.

The First Amendment protects the freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion while prohibiting an “establishment of religion,” and all three clauses were at issue in the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.

©2022 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. 

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Related Topics: U.S. SUPREME COURTEDUCATION
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