The Supreme Court on Monday sided with a praying football coach in a ruling that will add fuel to decades-old conflict over prayer in school. Conservative justices in the 6-3 majority said efforts to stop the coach from praying on the 50-yard line after games violated the free speech and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment.
“The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in the majority opinion.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer decried the ruling in their dissent, arguing that the majority was disregarding the school district’s significant concerns over how the coach’s actions affected his players.
“Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents,” they wrote.
The case, Kennedy v. Bremerton, pitted Bremerton High School in Washington state against its former assistant football coach, Joe Kennedy. The two sides didn’t agree on whether the coach’s prayers after games violated previous Supreme Court rulings stating that schools could not coerce students into participating in group prayers or Bible reading.
Lower courts sided with the school, arguing that Kennedy’s prayer represented government speech rather than private speech and could, therefore, be regulated. The Supreme Court on Monday overturned those rulings.
“Kennedy’s private religious exercise did not come close to crossing any line one might imagine separating protected private expression from impermissible government coercion,” the majority opinion said.
In a statement released Monday morning, the coach’s law firm, First Liberty Institute, celebrated the ruling and said it would benefit all people of faith.
“This is a tremendous victory for coach Kennedy and religious liberty for all Americans,” said Kelly Shackelford, president, CEO and chief counsel for First Liberty. “Our Constitution protects the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired.”
Other faith leaders and religious freedom advocates issued similar statements, praising the court for drawing a distinction between private expressions of faith that take place in public and official expressions of faith that potentially harm students.
“The Supreme Court rightly determined that an individual employed by a school does not forfeit his or her constitutional right to free expression simply by entering ‘the schoolhouse gate’ or, as it were in this case, the field of play,” said Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission in a statement.
But some religious organizations saw the case and ruling very differently. Kennedy’s prayers trample the religious freedom rights of students and families, said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the group that represented Bremerton officials.
“Today, the court continued its assault on church-state separation, by falsely describing coercive prayer as ‘personal’ and stopping public schools from protecting their students’ religious freedom,” she said. “This decision represents the greatest loss of religious freedom in our country in generations.”
Conservative justices’ professed support for religious freedom is actually putting religious freedom at risk, said Holly Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, in a statement.
“This court pays lip service to religious freedom but throws out any concern about avoiding government pressure on students. Students should not have to worry about whether their religious beliefs will be in or out of favor with their teachers, coaches and administrators, much less be pressured to participate in religious exercises at school,” she said.
Writing for the majority, Gorsuch seemed to anticipate reactions like these. He argued that the coach’s prayers did not put pressure on students and, therefore, did not raise establishment clause concerns.
“This case looks very different from those in which this court has found prayer involving public school students to be problematically coercive,” the majority opinion said.