WASHINGTON (AP) — A coach who crosses himself before a game. A teacher who reads the Bible aloud before the bell rings. A coach who hosts a Christian youth group after school at his home.
Supreme Court justices discussed all of those hypothetical scenarios Monday as they heard arguments about a former Washington state public high school football coach who wanted to kneel and pray on the field after games. The judges were struggling to balance the religious and free speech rights of teachers and coaches with the rights of students not to feel pressured to participate in religious practices.
The conservative majority of the court seemed to sympathize with the technician, while his three liberals were more skeptical. The result could strengthen the acceptability of some religious practices in public school settings.
Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who played high school basketball and coached his daughters’ teams, suggested there is a difference between a coach praying at a student meeting or in the locker room and “when the players are shelling out after the game.” ”. “This wasn’t, you know, ‘Get together, team,'” Kavauagh said at one point, suggesting the coach’s practice was acceptable.
Judge Amy Coney Barrett asked what if the coach had run a religious youth group after school at his home, with students free to join or not. Would the school have been able to object to that? she asked.
Arguments in the high court lasted almost two hours, despite being scheduled for only one. Judges and attorneys who defended the case at various points argued over teachers and coaches who could wear ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, oppose racism by kneeling during the national anthem, or express a political opinion by putting up signs in their yard. . Former NFL player Tim Tebow, known for kneeling in prayer on the field, and Egyptian soccer star Mohamed Salah, a Muslim who kneels and touches his forehead to the ground after a goal, also appeared.
Judge Samuel Alito, borrowing the news, asked about the protests over the Russian invasion of Ukraine and whether the coach, instead of praying, had gone out into midfield and “all he did was wave a Ukrainian flag”. Would he have been disciplined? Yes, said an attorney for the school district, because the district “doesn’t want their event to be taken for political speech.”
The Supreme Court previously declined to become involved in the case at an earlier stage in 2019. At the time, Alito wrote to 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 “troubling” for its “understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers.” But they agreed with the decision not to take the case at that time.
The case has returned to court at a time when the court’s conservative majority has been sympathetic to the concerns of religious individuals and groups, such as groups that challenged coronavirus restrictions on places of worship. But cases related to religion can also bring the court together. Already this term, in an 8-1 decision, the judges ruled in favor of a Texas death row inmate who sought his pastor to pray aloud and touch him while his execution took place. .
The case before the judges on Monday involves Joseph Kennedy, a Christian and former football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington. Kennedy began training at the school in 2008 and initially prayed alone at the 50-yard line at the end of games. But students began to join him, and over time, he began to give a short, inspiring talk with religious references. Kennedy did that for years and also led students in locker room prayers. The school district found out about what he was doing in 2015 and asked him to stop.
Kennedy stopped leading students in prayer in the locker room and on the field, but wanted to continue praying on the field himself, with students free to join if they wished. Concerned about being sued for violating students’ religious freedom rights, the school asked him to stop his practice of kneeling and praying while he was still “on duty” as a coach after the game. The school tried to find a solution so 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.
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Kennedy’s attorney, Paul Clement, told the justices that constitutional guarantees of free speech and religion protect his “private religious expression.”
Richard Katskee, an attorney for the school district, said public school employees can silently pray for themselves at work, even if students can see. But, he said, Kennedy’s actions pressured students to pray and also caused a security problem.
After Kennedy publicized his dispute with the school district in the media, bystanders stormed the field to pray with him, knocking over students in the process. He noted that the trainers have a power that is “impressive.” “The coach determines who makes the varsity, who gets playing time” and who gets recommended for college scholarships, he said. “Students know that you have to look good with the coach if… you have those aspirations.”
Judge Elena Kagan said that in previous cases the court has been concerned with “coercing students and making students feel like they have to join religious activities that they don’t want to join, that their parents don’t want them to join.” .
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 instead of other options the school offered: “Why there?” she asked at one point.
Clement said that “his religious beliefs” forced 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 begins its summer recess.
The case is Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, 21-418.
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