The Supreme Court of the United States on Monday handed down a 6-3 decision that said a public school district in Washington state was wrong to suspend an assistant football coach who led prayers on the football field, often joined by students, after home football games.
Along ideological lines, the high court said Assistant Coach Joseph Kennedy had a constitutional right, protected by the First Amendment’s free exercise clause, to pray on the field, The New York Times reported.
Although the so-called “Lemon test” for balancing the rights of schools to protect students’ individual rights from an intrusion of religion, established by the Supreme Court in Lemon v Kurtzman in 1971, had been frequently challenged in other decisions, this is the first one that actually overturned it.
Lemon had held that, before finding a school’s actions unconstitutional, courts must consider:
- whether the challenged school-based practice has a secular purpose
- whether its primary effect is to advance or inhibit religion
- whether it fosters excessive government entanglement with religion
Here, the court simply balanced Mr Kennedy’s individual right to freely exercise his own religion against the rights of students to be free of the government—i.e., a public school or school leader—establishing a state religion. The majority favored Mr Kennedy’s individual free exercise rights, and in so doing, poked a bigger hole in the wall that separates church and state.
“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse republic — whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority.
But three liberal justices dissented and joined in a dissenting opinion penned by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “The court sets us further down a perilous path in forcing states to entangle themselves with religion, with all of our rights hanging in the balance,” she wrote.
Although there was some celebration on the part of Mr Kennedy, others see the decision as a weakening of the separation of church and state.
“Today, the court continued its assault on church-state separation, by falsely describing coercive prayer as ‘personal’ and stopping public schools from protecting their students’ religious freedom,” the Times quoted Rachel Laser, the president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, as saying in a statement.
Perhaps Ms Laser was being polite, referring to the majority opinion “falsely describing” key facts in the case. What many legal experts, including Laurence Tribe, who was one of Chief Justice John Roberts’s law professors at Harvard, have said, is that the majority opinion was set, from the beginning, in a sort of alternate reality.
I’m old enough to remember when “alternative facts” weren’t a thing Supreme Court Justices would invent in order to drive a religious and political results-driven agenda they took with them to the Court. With religion, abortion, and guns this bunch has. https://t.co/35JvRwglli
— Laurence Tribe (@tribelaw) June 28, 2022
An important point, noted by many commenters and by Justice Sotomayor in her dissent, is that when school leaders, such as football coaches who can provide college recruiting help, teachers who give grades, and other school officials, start praying, students feel obligated to join and know that they may be ostracized if they don’t participate.
“Students look up to their teachers and coaches as role models and seek their approval,” the justice added. “Students also depend on this approval for tangible benefits. Players recognize that gaining the coach’s approval may pay dividends small and large, from extra playing time to a stronger letter of recommendation to additional support in college athletic recruiting.”
—Jesus, quoted in Matthew 5:5–6
The ruling creates some tension over laws that prohibit teachers from teaching certain subjects, such as a historical figure’s sexual preference, sex change operations, or perhaps some long-debunked “science” theory. This is a slippery slope, because it is not likely to be limited to religious speech.