A coach crossing himself before a game. A teacher reading the Bible aloud before the bell rings. A coach who hosts an after-school Christian youth group in his home.
Supreme Court justices discussed all of those hypothetical scenarios Monday while listening to arguments about a former Washington state high school public football coach who wanted to kneel and pray on the field after games. The judges are wrestling with how to balance teachers’ and coaches’ rights to religion and freedom of expression with students’ rights not to feel pressured to participate in religious practices.
The conservative majority of the court seemed sympathetic to the coach, while his three liberals looked rather skeptical. The result could increase the acceptance of some religious practices in the public school environment.
Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who himself played basketball in high school and coached his daughters’ teams, suggested that there’s a difference between a coach praying in a group with students or in the locker room and “when players after the pay out game”. “It wasn’t ‘huddle up, team,'” Kavauagh once said, implying that the coach’s practice was acceptable.
Judge Amy Coney Barrett asked what if the coach had instead led an after-school religious youth group at his home, which students were free to attend or not. Could the school have objected to that, she asked.
The clashes in front of the Supreme Court lasted almost two hours, although only one was scheduled. The judges and lawyers hearing the case discussed at various points teachers and coaches wearing ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, speaking out against racism by kneeling during the national anthem, or expressing a political opinion by put up signs in the backyard of their home. Also featured were former NFL player Tim Tebow, known for kneeling on the field in prayer, and Egyptian soccer star Mohamed Salah, a Muslim who kneels with his forehead on the ground after a goal.
Judge Samuel Alito, echoing the news, asked about the protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine and what if, instead of praying, the coach had gone to the center of the field and “all he did was a Ukrainian flag would have pivoted”. Would he have been disciplined? Yes, a school district attorney said, because the district “doesn’t want its event to be used for political speeches.”
The Supreme Court previously declined to interfere in the case earlier in 2019. At the time, Alito wrote for himself and three other Conservatives — Kavanaugh and Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas — that a lower court decision in favor of the school district was “disturbing” because of its “understanding of public school teachers’ freedom of speech.” But they agreed with the decision not to take up the case at the time.
The case was brought back to court at a time when the conservative majority of the court was sympathetic to the concerns of religious figures and groups, including groups challenging the coronavirus restrictions placed on places of worship. But the court can also agree on cases relating to religion. During that term, the judges ruled 8-1 for a Texas death row inmate who tried to get his pastor to pray aloud and touch him while his execution was being carried out.
The case before judges Monday involves Joseph Kennedy, a Christian and former football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington. Kennedy began coaching at the school in 2008 and initially prayed alone at the 50-yard line at the end of games. But the students joined him, and over time he began giving a short, inspirational talk with religious references. Kennedy did this for years and also led students to prayers in locker rooms. The school district learned what he was doing in 2015 and asked him to stop.
Kennedy stopped leading the students to prayer in the locker room and on the field, but wanted to continue praying himself on the field, with students free to join if they wished. Concerned about being sued for violating students’ freedom of religion, the school asked him to stop his practice of kneeling and praying while he was still “on duty” as coach after the game. The school attempted to work out a solution so that Kennedy could pray privately before or after the game. When he continued to kneel and pray in the field, the school put him on paid leave.
Kennedy’s attorney, Paul Clement, told judges that the constitution’s freedoms of speech and religion protect his “private religious expression.”
Richard Katskee, a school district attorney, said public school workers can pray quietly at work, even when students can see. But, he said, Kennedy’s actions put pressure on students to pray and also created a safety issue.
After Kennedy publicized his dispute with the school district in the media, onlookers rushed the field to pray with him, knocking out students in the process. He noted that trainers have a power that is “awesome.” “The coach decides who goes to college, who gets playtime,” and who gets recommended for college scholarships, he said.
Judge Elena Kagan said the court has dealt in previous cases with “suppressing students and making them feel like they have to participate in religious activities that they don’t want to participate in and that their parents don’t want them to.” to participate in it”.
Kagan is one of three judges on the court who attended a public high school, while the rest attended Catholic schools.
Judge Sonia Sotomayor questioned why Kennedy had to pray at the 50-yard line immediately after the game and not other options the school offered: “Why there?” she once asked.
Clement said “his religious beliefs” compelled Kennedy to express his gratitude there. “I don’t think there’s anything unusual about that,” he said.
A decision is expected before the court goes on summer recess.
The case is Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, 21-418.