[Rushtalk] US Supreme Court rules in favor of coach fired for school prayer

Carl Spitzer {C Juno} cwsiv at juno.com
Sat Jul 2 15:27:48 MDT 2022


US Supreme Court rules in favor of coach fired for school prayer 

ADL 'deeply disturbed' by ruling supporting right to prayer in public

Ron Kampeas, JTA 
28.06.22 14:11

Freedom Of Religion Supreme Court 
Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy Former
Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy Win
McNamee/Getty Images
The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Seattle-area football coach who
lost his job after leading prayers on the field following his team’s
victories, in a decision that could have ramifications for students and
teachers in public schools and service members in the military.

Some Jewish groups say the 6-3 ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton, issued
Monday, could roll back church-state separations that barred prayers in
schools for decades.

“This is a significant change in how we approach prayer in public
schools, and one that will have a negative impact in particular on
students of marginalized faiths and non-religious students,” said Rachel
Robbins, the chairwoman of the Anti-Defamation League’s Civil Rights
Committee. The ADL, which joined a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf
of the school district, said it was “deeply disturbed” by the decision.

The expressions of concern came despite reassurances by Justice Neil
Gorsuch that the ruling was in line with a famous 1992 Supreme Court
decision in favor of a Rhode Island Jewish family who objected to clergy
leading prayer at their children’s public school.

Writing for the court’s conservative majority, Gorsuch quoted from that
decision, Lee v. Weisman, in which the court held “that religious
beliefs and religious expression are too precious to be either
proscribed or prescribed by the State.” The ruling Monday in favor of
Joseph Kennedy, an assistant coach in the Bremerton, Washington, school
district, Gorsuch wrote, similarly protects First Amendment religious

Jewish groups were not buying it.

“The Court’s see-no-evil approach to the coach’s prayer will encourage
those who seek to proselytize within the public schools to do so with
the Court’s blessing,” said Marc Stern, the chief legal officer of the
American Jewish Committee, which had joined a friend-of-the-court brief
on the side of the school district. 

“That is no advance for religious liberty,” Stern added.

The Bremerton case centered on the activities of Kennedy, who started
out by praying alone at the 50-yard line and did not call on others to
join him. But soon after, students and others started joining Kennedy in
prayer, alarming the school district. It proposed alternatives,
including allowing him to pray after the game, but he declined and
continued to pray to increased media attention. The school district
decided not to renew his contract.

The court concluded, essentially, that by preventing a Christian high
school coach from praying, the school district had violated his civil
rights no less than had it forced other children to pray.

“Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging
in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance,” Gorsuch said,
emphasizing that Kennedy had not explicitly urged students to join him
in prayer.

“It seems clear to us that Mr. Kennedy has demonstrated that his speech
was private speech, not government speech,” Gorsuch wrote. “This case
looks very different from those in which this Court has found prayer
involving public school students to be problematically coercive,” he
said, specifically citing Lee v. Weisman.

Lee v. Weisman involved a Baptist clergyman who said at a 1986 middle
school graduation ceremony in Providence, “Please rise and praise Jesus
for the accomplishments of these children today.” 

Merith Weisman’s parents, Vivian, the assistant executive director at
the local Jewish Community Center, and Daniel, a social work professor,
were unnerved, and the prayer triggered a series of events and lawsuits
that culminated in the landmark 1992 case.

That decision was 5-4. Antonin Scalia, the late conservative justice
whom Gorsuch replaced, said for years it was wrongly decided.

The AJC’s Stern said Gorsuch was cherry-picking quotes from the earlier
decision to make his own opinion sound less far-reaching than it was.

“There’s a tendency to sanitize a practice, rip it out of its historical
roots and look at it in splendid isolation, and so it [appears] not so
terrible,” Stern said in an interview.

Kennedy, as an assistant coach, may not have the same power as the
principal in the Rhode Island case who invited clergy, Stern said, but
the coach still had coercive power over students, and it was
disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

“Kids will do anything to get on a coach’s good side and get playing
time,” Stern said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the liberal minority in the
dissent, made a similar point, illustrating it with a photo of students
surrounding Kennedy in prayer.

“Several parents reached out to the District saying that their children
had participated in Kennedy’s prayers solely to avoid separating
themselves from the rest of the team,” Sotomayor wrote. “No [Bremerton
High School] students appeared to pray on the field after Kennedy’s

The National Council of Jewish Women, also a signatory to a
friend-of-the-court brief, said the latest decision was one in a series
that eroded church-state separations, citing among others the recent
decision directing the state of Maine to pay for religious schooling for
students for whom reaching public schools is arduous.

“No student should have to choose between their religious freedom and
being part of school activities,” Jody Rabhan, the group’s chief policy
officer, said in a statement. “But today’s ruling in Kennedy v.
Bremerton could force children enrolled in public schools to do just

Mikey Weinstein, the Jewish veteran who leads the Military Religious
Freedom Foundation, which advocates for religion-state separations in
the military, said the ruling will undercut his years-long efforts to
remove Christian prayers from military academy athletic events.

The decision “will serve to utterly and expeditiously destroy the
precious wall separating church and state in our country and especially
the U.S. military,” he said.



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