News Update

Supreme Court rules that First Amendment protects football coach’s on-field prayers

In another decision this month broadening the right of religious expression in public schools, the Supreme Court Monday sided with a high school football coach who lost his job for conducting prayers at midfield after games.

Writing for the conservative majority in a 6-3 ruling, Justice Neil Gorsuch said that coach Joseph Kennedy’s protection under the First Amendment to pray at school didn’t violate the First Amendment’s ban prohibiting government from establishing or showing preference to a religion.

Since 1968, the First Amendment standard had been the “Lemon Test,” which the Supreme Court established in its 8-1 decision in Lemon v. Kurtman. It instructed courts to decide whether a reasonable observer could conclude that a government’s action might appear to endorse religion.

Although Gorsuch wrote that his opinion did not overrule the test, the three justices who dissented said that nonetheless was the effect.

“This Court consistently has recognized that school officials leading prayer is constitutionally impermissible. Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents … The Court now charts a different path,” he wrote.

Kennedy, a part-time coach at Bremerton High School in Washington State for seven years, had prayed after games, in the locker room or alone on the field. Later his players and eventually some members of the other teams joined him. He stopped his prayers in September 2015, after the school district expressed disapproval.

But one month later, he notified the district he would resume, and, after the game, spectators ran on the field to join him and players, along with a TV news crew. The district suspended him and did not renew his job after the season.

Last week, the same 6-3 majority overturned Maine’s law forbidding financial support for private religious schools as a First Amendment violation. It ruled in Carson v. Makin that the state’s tuition program, enabling families in towns without their own high schools to attend non-secular private high schools,  must include the option to choose religious high schools.