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Supreme Court weighs Christian rights in soccer coach’s prayer case

Once again, the Supreme Court can bulldoze minority protections in the name of religious freedom. In recent cases, the Supreme Court has allowed Christians to violate anti-discrimination laws designed to protect the LGBTQ community. Now, in a case it heard oral argument on Monday, the court may prioritize a coach’s Christian practice over the US Constitution itself – specifically the protection of religious minorities guaranteed by the separation of Church and religion. the state.

In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, Joe Kennedy, a former public high school football coach, claims his First Amendment rights were violated because the public school that employed him ordered him to stop kneeling publicly and to pray on the 50 meter line immediately afterwards. games surrounded by students in front of a full stadium. These moments often turned into Christian prayers for the young people on his team. The school repeatedly offered Kennedy alternatives – such as praying in the press box or praying in midfield after the stadium emptied – but the coach turned them down.

One member of the team – who is an atheist but felt compelled to pray – explained that he feared that if he abstained the coach would cut his playing time. This is exactly the kind of dilemma the separation of church and state provided for by the Constitution seeks to avoid.

Instead, Kennedy filed a lawsuit raising both religious freedom and free speech claims. In particular, Kennedy argues that he had a free speech right to engage in his public midfield prayers while at work, as required by his religion. So what is at issue is not a teacher’s right to private personal prayer, which the school was keen to accommodate, but his right to preach to his students in front of a stadium full of supporters. There are at least two problems with his claim.

First, the free speech rights of public employers such as public school teachers and coaches are significantly curtailed while on the job. Public sector employees simply don’t have the right to say what they want while on the job, and their employers can discipline them when they leave the message. More specifically, according to the Supreme Court, the word of a public employee on the work which owes its existence to this work is in no way protected. The logic behind this rule is that the government pays you for your services and your speech, and therefore it is up to them to control.

This logic applies here. As Kennedy now concedes, he was always on the clock during his public prayers, as his responsibilities extended to supervising students immediately after the game. Also, the school was paying the coach to give inspirational speeches to his team, and he simply wouldn’t have had access to the team or the football field if not for his job.

Joe Kennedy, former assistant football coach at Bremerton High School, stands on the school’s football field in Bremerton, Wash., March 9.Ted S. Warren / AP file

But even if Kennedy’s speech were protected, neither his free speech rights nor his religious rights are absolute. No constitutional right is. This is especially true when there are other constitutional rights at stake. Here, his rights clash with the Establishment Clause rights of public school students. The Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution is the part of the First Amendment that imposes a degree of separation between church and state and prohibits the government from favoring one religion over another or compelling people to practice a religion. It was this doctrine that informed the school’s decision to curtail Kennedy’s religious activities on the job.

Historically, the Supreme Court has been particularly vigilant about protecting against violations of the Establishment Clause in public schools. The highest court, for example, banned the Ten Commandments from classroom walls and daily Bible readings in public schools. This does not mean that schools should completely avoid religion – religion can be integrated appropriately into history, English or world religions lessons. But the government cannot religiously indoctrinate public school students.

More pertinently, the Supreme Court has ruled that school-led or school-sponsored prayers violate the Establishment Clause. He banned public school teachers from leading students in a short prayer at the start of the school day, even though participation was optional. He banned public schools from inviting clergy to give religious invocations and blessings at graduation ceremonies. Finally, the Supreme Court found that a school’s organization of students to lead prayers at football games may cross the constitutional line.

These Establishment Clause rulings recognize that school-sponsored religious exercises — including prayers by authority figures like teachers and coaches — risk undermining both religious freedom and student equality. belonging to religious minorities.

In Monday’s case, the students’ religious freedom is at stake as the coach’s Christian prayers could pressure non-Christians among them to join, even if it is against their religious beliefs. . As recognized by the Supreme Court, students are particularly susceptible to pressures, including indirect pressures, which “can be as real as any overt coercion”. If all of their teammates are participating, a student may feel overwhelming peer pressure to participate as well.

It can be even harder to resist the coercive pressure of a hugely influential role model, as coaches often are. Indeed, one member of the squad – who is an atheist but felt compelled to pray – explained that he feared that if he abstained, the coach would cut his playing time. That’s exactly the kind of dilemma that the separation of church and state provided for in the Constitution seeks to avoid.

Student equality is also at stake because their coach’s public prayers make the young people’s religious affiliation relevant to whether or not they truly feel part of the school community. One of the purposes of the establishment clause is to ensure that the government does not make second-class citizens of those who do not belong to the religious majority. Or as Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun observed in a concurring opinion in Lee v. Weisman, a 1992 case that struck down school-sponsored prayers: “A government cannot assume that all people are created equal when it says God prefers a few.” When most members of the team join the coach, those who don’t suddenly become second-class underdogs.

Kennedy should and does have the right to pray. But it should not be allowed to do so in a way that tramples on the rights of students who are doubly vulnerable to coercion – because of the asymmetry of power between teachers and young students, and because of their minority status in a predominantly Christian country. .

Sadly, the Supreme Court may be on the verge of stripping these essential Establishment Clause protections for public school children. During the oral argument, the conservative judges indicated that their sympathy could go to the Christian coach who wanted to pray exactly as he wanted rather than to the non-Christian youngsters under his authority. In the eyes of these judges, the religious rights of Christians can still take precedence over everything else.

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