On June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District that a Washington state public school district cannot prohibit a high school football coach from praying at the 50-yard line after a game.
“The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a 6-3 opinion for the conservative majority.
The ruling continues the high court’s trend of siding with religious plaintiffs. Last week, in Carson v. Makin, the court held that Maine cannot exclude religious schools from a program that provides tuition for private education.
The prayer ruling has school officials across the nation once again pondering the limits on religious expression in schools. Here is a look at the decision and what it may mean for area schools:
Ruling OKs’ Private’ and ‘Personal’ Religious Expression
According to the decision, public schools cannot prohibit employees from engaging in “private” and “personal” religious expression on the job.
The court said football coach Joseph Kennedy must be allowed to pray after games, even if he is in public view. The school district fired the coach after he refused to comply with the district’s directive to pray where the public could not see him.
The district had argued that Kennedy’s prayer was not private because his players sometimes joined him, the prayer occurred while he was on the job, and the prayer was attracting attention in the community. However, the court said the prayer was private as Kennedy did not ask or require his players to join, and the prayer did not fall “within the scope of his duties as a coach.”
The majority noted that other coaches took time after games to interact with family and make phone calls and said punishing Kennedy for praying constitutes unfair treatment. Moreover, the court said that if Kennedy’s prayer was viewed as a public endorsement, schools could fire Muslim teachers for wearing headscarves in classrooms or bar a Christian aide from praying over her lunch in the cafeteria.
Dissent Raises Concerns About Coercion, Confusion
Writing a dissent on behalf of the liberal justices, Justice Sonia Sotomayor rejected the idea that Kennedy’s prayer was private and went as far as to include pictures of the coach in prayer surrounded by players. She also said some parents had indicated that their children felt pressured to join in, but Justice Gorsuch said that was hearsay.
Justice Sotomayor concluded that the decision would lead to confusion as it “provides little in the way of answers.”
“How will school administrators exercise their responsibilities to manage school curriculum and events when the court appears to elevate individuals’ rights to religious exercise above all else?” she wrote.
Does the Ruling Sanction School Prayer?
The ruling does not give schools the green light to conduct public prayer or require students to take part in other types of religious expression. Kennedy had prayed with students in the locker room and gave religious-themed pep talks after games, but his lawyer did not defend those practices, and they most likely would not pass constitutional muster.
Bottom Line for Schools
The main takeaway is that schools will have difficulty barring employees from engaging in “private” religious expression while on the job, especially during a lull in duties. Justice Gorsuch also made it clear that schools cannot ban religious expression because some onlookers may believe that the school is endorsing religion.
Schools should still be able to halt religious expression when students feel pressured to join, but there are questions as to what this conservative court would consider undue pressure.
School officials with specific concerns or looking for guidance on distinguishing “public” and “private” religious expression should contact their legal counsel or one of the education attorneys at KingSpry.