Touchdown, Christianity! The Supreme Court has sided with a high school football coach who lost his job after refusing to stop leading prayers on the field after games.
The case concerns Joseph Kennedy, a football coach at Bremerton High School, a public high school in Washington state. For years, Kennedy prayed after games without issue, both on the 50-yard line and in the locker room with his team.
In 2015, the school district asked Kennedy to stop openly praying, fearing that it could be interpreted as a school endorsement of Christianity – and an infringement of the separation of church and state.
Kennedy sued the school district, alleging a violation of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
A Legal Hail Mary
For years, numerous lower courts sided with the school district. Undeterred, he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.
The school's argument was that even if the prayers were “well-intentioned,” they could easily be seen as an endorsement of the Christian faith, leaving the school open to potential litigation.
Additionally, they claimed that the incredibly public way Kennedy prayed – literally kneeling at the 50-yard line after games – put pressure on students to join in with him. In their dissent, the court’s liberal justices agreed, citing individual students who said they felt pressure to join the prayers, lest their position on the team or reputation with their coach be compromised.
But the Supreme Court disagreed. In a 6-3 decision, the justices ruled that the school district was wrong to stop Kennedy from praying. The nation’s highest court sided with the praying coach, arguing that the school district violated his freedom of speech when they stopped the prayers, which were judged to be a private display of faith, rather than potentially coercive.
Writing for the majority, Justice Gorsuch insisted that “[Kennedy] offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied.”
Despite the court’s judgment, not everyone is buying the argument that the prayers were solitary in nature.
As one lower court judge wrote in an earlier ruling, Kennedy “prayed out loud in the middle of the football field… surrounded by players, members of the opposing team, parents, a local politician and members of the news media with television cameras recording the event.”
Is Prayer Contagious, or Coercive?
As Kennedy explains it, he was only offering a solitary prayer for himself, with no pressure on players to join him whatsoever. Students simply kept joining him, out of their own volition, he argues.
Supporters of the ruling say this case shows the power of prayer, and that the decision provides a boon to individual freedom and the free exercise of religion.
Critics, on the other hand, argue that this could be viewed as religious coercion.
For example, they believe players that didn’t share the coach’s Christian faith could reasonably worry that they’d be treated differently if they didn’t participate in the group prayer.
They point out that a nonreligious player might feel compelled to join the prayer circle in order to stay in the coach's good graces (or those of their teammates).
Opponents also insist that it's entirely inappropriate for an influential leadership figure at a public school to practice their faith so prominently in front of students and players.
Did the Court Fumble?
When the court’s decision was announced, social media users immediately began speculating about a world where the facts of the case were slightly different.
What if, for example, the prayers in question were coming from a faith other than Christianity?
Shortly after the ruling, "Jewish or Muslim" began trending on Twitter, as users pondered whether school-sponsored prayers to Allah would net the same legal result.
Perhaps the biggest fear among supporters of the separation of church and state is that the ruling could open the door to a further intrusion of religion into schools.
Teachers have always been allowed to express their faith – think cross necklaces or private prayers alone in classrooms – but could this ruling lead to teacher-led prayer in classrooms?
The dissenting justices seem to fear as much. As Justice Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, “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.”
What do you think? Did the court fumble this ruling, or is it a legal touchdown for religious liberty?