Washington’s Bremerton School District forbid a football coach from praying after games claiming it pressured students to join in his prayer. Former Assistant Football Coach Joseph Kennedy sued the district for allegedly violating his First Amendment right to freedom of religion.
“Going to the 50-yard line directly after the game when you’re the coach, with the students assuming they’re supposed to gather with the coach, and praying at that time puts pressure on kids to join,” Rachel Laser said, according to the New York Times report. Laser is president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is representing the school board.
Lower courts have sided with the Bremerton School District, but it is now before the most conservative Supreme Court in decades. Oral arguments before those nine justices begin Monday to determine if the school district properly suspended Kennedy from his job after he refused to stop praying on the field at the end of games.
The 1947 decision in Everson v. Board of Education discussed a “wall of separation” that must exist between government and religion. That discussion coined the well-known phrase “separation of church and state.”
“The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in religion,” the justices opined in that case.
Supreme Court decisions since then have consistently kept that wall high in the past 75 years. In fact, the court ruled in 2020 that organized prayers led by students at high school football games violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause. The clause gets its name from wording in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
“The delivery of a pregame prayer has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his majority ruling.
Monday’s case will decide if a public school employee praying by himself while at school and visible to students is engaging in “government speech” and therefore not protected by the First Amendment. Even though Kennedy claimed he never asked or directed students to join him in prayer, some parents allege their child worried not doing so may have cost them playing time or even a spot on the team.
The former coach insists he has challenged many reporters over the years to find one student to say they felt pressured to join him in prayer after games.
“The whole idea of just because I’m working there, I have no rights anymore as an American?” Kennedy reportedly said. “When do I stop representing the school district? And that’s what we’re kind of asking, just a simple thing: Can I pray after a football game?”
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