U.S. Supreme Court endorses football coach’s on-field prayers

The U.S. Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, U.S., June 26, 2022. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz

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WASHINGTON, June 27 (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday expanded the religious rights of government employees by ruling in favor of a former Christian football coach at a Washington state public high school who sued after he was suspended from his job for refusing to stop directing. prayers with the players on the pitch after the games.

In the latest in a series of Supreme Court decisions taking a broad view of religious freedom, the justices in a 6-3 ruling sided with Joseph Kennedy, who until 2015 served as an assistant football coach part-time in the town of Bremerton and has since become a cause celebre for conservative Christian activists.

The court’s conservative judges were in the majority and its dissenting liberal members.

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The decision, written by Judge Neil Gorsuch, dismissed local school district concerns that, in a public school, Kennedy’s prayers and Christian-infused speeches could be seen as coercive of students or government endorsement of students. a particular religion in violation of the First Amendment. – known as the establishment clause.

The Supreme Court ruled that Kennedy’s actions were protected by his own rights under the First Amendment, which protects freedom of 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 shrine or on the ground, and whether they are manifested through speech or a bowed head,” Gorsuch wrote. .

Pushed by its conservative majority, the Supreme Court in recent years has expanded the religious rights of individuals and businesses while narrowing the separation between church and state.

Judges overturned a lower court ruling in favor of the school district, which suspended him in 2015 after Kennedy repeatedly defied officials’ instructions to stop postgame prayers while on duty and rejected their offers for him to use private school premises as an alternative.

Gorsuch said the district’s “retaliation” against Kennedy “was based on a mistaken view that he had a duty to unearth and suppress religious observances even though he permits comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor condones this kind of discrimination.

Dissenting, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the court again gave “a bit of weight” to the establishment clause when weighed against individual rights.

The Bremerton School District argued that Kennedy “put on a show” by giving prayers and speeches, inviting students to join him, and courting media attention while acting in his capacity as an employee. of the government. Some parents said their children felt compelled to participate.

Last year, the San Francisco-based US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Kennedy, finding that local officials would have violated the First Amendment ban on the government’s establishment of religion if they let his actions continue.

Kennedy coached at his alma mater, Bremerton High School, from 2008 to 2015. His lawyers say he “lost his job” because of his actions, filing a lawsuit in 2016. Kennedy sought an order from the court to be reinstated as a coach, accusing officials of religious discrimination and violating his free speech rights.

Kennedy initially appeared to comply with instructions to stop prayers during his service, the district said, but later refused and made media appearances to publicize the dispute, drawing national attention. After repeated challenges, he was put on paid leave from his seasonal contract and did not re-apply as manager for the following season.

Officials pointed out that Kennedy no longer lives in the school district and has moved to Florida. He said he would come back if he got his job back.

First Liberty Institute, a conservative religious rights group, helped represent Kennedy in the case.

The Supreme Court has issued a series of rulings on religious rights this year.

On June 21, he approved the use of public funds to pay students who attend religious schools in a Maine case. On May 2, he supported a Christian group seeking to fly a flag bearing a cross at Boston City Hall. On March 24, he ordered Texas to grant a death row murderer his request that his Christian pastor lay hands on him and pray audibly during his execution. Read more

In other religious rights rulings in recent years, the Supreme Court has broken down barriers for public money to go to religious schools and churches and exempted family businesses from a federal requirement for health coverage. employee birth control insurance for women on religious grounds. He also sided with a publicly funded Catholic organization that barred LGBT people from applying to become adoptive parents and supported a Christian baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Read more

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Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Lawrence Hurley

Thomson Reuters

Washington-based journalist covering legal cases with a focus on the United States Supreme Court, Pulitzer Prize winner for a team project on how the qualified immunity defense protects police officers accused of excessive force.

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