WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled today in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, siding with a public-school football coach who demanded the right to pray with his players after games at the 50-yard-line. The decision significantly erodes the separation of church and state in public schools.
The case was brought by Joseph Kennedy, a former football coach in Bremerton, Washington, who sued a public school district for placing him on administrative leave after he repeatedly ignored directives to stop leading his team in mid-field prayers immediately after games. The school determined that Kennedy’s practice violated students’ religious-freedom rights and also created a safety risk at games because Kennedy had orchesterated a public spectacle by inviting media and local politicans to attend. Kennedy claimed that the school’s actions violated his free-speech and free-exercise rights.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Washington filed a Supreme Court amicus brief in the case, arguing that Kennedy’s prayers, which he admits he delivered while on duty, are not protected by the Free Speech Clause and that the school district had a constitutional duty to stop his practice because it violated the separation of church and state. As the dissent explained, “[t]oday’s decision is particularly misguided because it elevates the religious rights of a school official . . . over those of his students, who are required to attend school and who this Court has long recognized are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection.”
Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said:
“This decision is deeply disappointing and undermines the religious liberty of public school students. As the Supreme Court recognized over 60 years ago, it’s inherently coercive for school officials to pray with students while on duty. Today’s ruling ignores that basic principle and tramples the religious freedom of students who may not share the preferred faith of their coaches and teachers.”
Taryn Darling, senior staff attorney, ACLU of Washington, said:
“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. 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. This decision strains the separation of church and state — a bedrock principle of our democracy – and potentially harms our youth.”
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