Monday August 15, 2022

The Supreme Court has been accsued of “inviting religion into the classroom” after it said a high school football coach had the right to pray on the touchline.

The top court on Monday expanded the religious rights of government employees by ruling in favor of a Christian former public high school football coach in Washington state who had sued after being suspended from his job for refusing to stop leading prayers with players on the field after games.

While the decision was cheered by the coach, Joseph Kennedy, and those who thought his first amendment rights had been abused, it was denounced by those who said the court had started to erode the traditional separartion of church and state.

Some parents at the school said students had felt pressured to pray with the coach.

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“No one should be pressured to pray at school—this can be a harmful use of power, especially for girls & LGBTQ students,” said Sunu Chandy, Legal Director of the National Women’s Law Centre.

Author David Neihert, author of Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us, said: “I guess we’ve been too preoccupied with SCOTUS’s dismantling of women’s reproductive rights to notice that it also is dismantling the wall of separation between church and state.”

Rachel Laser, the CEO of the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which had represented Bremerton School District in the case against Mr Kennedy, said: “The Supreme Court just invited coercive prayer into public schools by ruling that Bremerton School District–a public school system– cannot stop a coach from conducting public prayers with his team at team huddle. “

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She added: A huge blow to church-state separation.”

The court’s conservative justices were in the majority and its liberal members in dissent.

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The ruling, authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, rejected the local school district’s concerns that in a public school setting Kennedy’s prayers and Christian-infused speeches could be seen as coercive to students or a governmental endorsement of a particular religion in violation of the first amendment’s so-called establishment clause.

The Supreme Court held that Mr Kennedy’s actions were protected by his own rights under the First Amendment, which protects free speech and religious expression.

“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse republic – whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head,” Mr Gorsuch wrote.

The justices overturned a lower court’s ruling siding with the school district, which suspended him in 2015 after Kennedy repeatedly defied directions from officials to stop the post-game prayers while on duty and rebuffed their offers for him to use private locations in the school as an alternative.

The ruling, by the court that has a 6-3 conservative majority as a result of the appointment of three justices nominated by Donald Trump, follows last Friday’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, the landmark judgement that had for almost 50 years guaranteed a woman’s right to abortion.

The ruling was welcomed by the group that had supported Mr Kennedy in the case in the Bremerton School District, located in the greater Seattle area.

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“This is a tremendous victory for Coach Kennedy and religious liberty for all Americans,” said Kelly Shackelford, President, CEO of 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. We are grateful that the Supreme Court recognised what the constitution and law have always said – American’s are free to live out their faith in public.”

Mike Pompeo, a fundamental christian and Mr Trump’s CIA Director, said on Twitter: “Our right to pray – anytime and anywhere – is fundamental. That right was affirmed today at our highest Court in the Kennedy v Bremerton decision. I am excited to build on this victory and continue securing our inalienable right to religious freedom.”

But in Washington state, the ACLU said the decision would send a very bad message.

“The freedom to hold beliefs that differ from those with authority has been a founding principle of our country. It is disappointing that today’s decision erodes protections for public school students to learn and grow free of coercion,” said ACLU lawyer Taryn Darling.

“Kitsap County is a religiously diverse community and students reported they felt coerced to pray. One player explained he participated against his own beliefs for the fear of losing playing time if he declined.”

Additional reporting by Reuters

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