Home United States USA — Science Supreme Court Says High School Coach's Postgame Prayers Are Protected Free Speech

Supreme Court Says High School Coach's Postgame Prayers Are Protected Free Speech

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The majority decision for Kennedy v. Bremerton School District leans heavily on evidence and statements that no student was coerced or ever said they felt coerced to participate in these postgame prayers.
The Supreme Court ruled today that a high school football coach has a First Amendment right to lead a voluntary postgame prayer on the field and that a school district cannot punish him for it. In a 6–3 decision, the Court determined that Joseph Kennedy, a former assistant coach at Bremerton High School in Washington state, was within his First Amendment rights and not acting in his capacity as a school official when he prayed on the 50-yard line at football games and permitted others (including students) to join him. As such, Kennedy was not causing the school to violate the Establishment Clause and endorse a particular religion. The majority decision for Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Amy Coney Barrett, and Brett Kavanaugh, leans heavily on evidence and statements that no student was coerced or ever said they felt coerced to participate in these postgame prayers. Gorsuch observes that it doesn’t appear that the method that Kennedy engaged in prayer caused anybody to feel as though he were pushing his religion on students as a coach:
This Court has long recognized as well that “secondary school students are mature enough… to understand that a school does not endorse”, let alone coerce them to participate in, “speech that it merely permits on a nondiscriminatory basis.”… Of course, some will take offense to certain forms of speech or prayer they are sure to encounter in a society where those activities enjoy such robust constitutional protection. But “[o] ffense… does not equate to coercion.”
Gorsuch rejects the idea that “any visible religious conduct by a teacher or coach should be deemed—without more and as a matter of law—impermissibly coercive on students” as “a sure sign that our Establishment Clause jurisprudence had gone off the rails.” He argues that such a position isn’t neutral at all. It would preference secular speech and repress religious speech, a violation of the First Amendment. He sees this case differently from other examples—like a member of a church reciting a prayer during a graduation speech or a school broadcasting a prayer over a public address system prior to a football game. Those were examples where the school was making religious expression a part of an event. Courts have seen this as an impermissible violation of the Establishment Clause. That’s not what happened in this case. That’s how the majority sees the facts. But the dissenters in this case, justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Stephen Breyer, see the very details of what happened here differently from how Gorsuch presents them in the majority opinion. Gorsuch’s opinion presents Kennedy as “engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance.” Sotomayor, who wrote the dissent, writes that this characterization is wrong, and Gorsuch’s description essentially downplays any potential coercive impacts of the prayer:
To the degree the Court portrays petitioner Joseph Kennedy’s prayers as private and quiet, it misconstrues the facts.

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