US Supreme Court rules in favor of public school officials pressuring students to participate in Christian prayer

Yesterday the US Supreme Court handed down a decision in favor of a football coach who held disruptive, provocative religious ceremonies at the 50-yard line after high school football games, during which he would surround himself with kneeling students. 

An anti-scaling fence surrounds the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday, May 5, 2022 in Washington. [AP Photo/(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)]

The Supreme Court’s decision, which comes on the heels of the decision Friday abolishing the constitutional right to abortion, is a direct assault on the separation of church and state. 

The decision was issued by the far-right bloc consisting of Neil Gorsuch, Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito, John Roberts and Clarence Thomas. The remaining three justices—Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan—filed a dissenting opinion.

The lawsuit in question was filed by Joseph Kennedy, who was hired in 2008 by the Bremerton School District in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington, to serve as a part-time assistant coach for the varsity football team at Bremerton High School and as head coach for the junior varsity team. 

The Seattle area in particular has a national reputation for cultural and religious tolerance. Documents filed in amicus (friend of court) briefs in the Supreme Court in advance of yesterday’s decision indicate that Kitsap County, where the district is located, is home to “Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, and many denominations of Christians,” as well as “numerous residents who are religiously unaffiliated.” The county has 5,000 public school students, together with more than 300 teachers and 400 non-teaching personnel. 

The school district’s written policy, like many throughout the US, provides that “religious services, programs or assemblies shall not be conducted in school facilities during school hours or in connection with any school sponsored or school related activity.” The policy requires secular neutrality: School officials cannot endorse or denounce any particular religion while acting in their official capacities.

Kennedy, while acting in his official capacity, developed a practice of forming Christian prayer circles at the 50-yard line after football games in flagrant violation of this policy. At the center of the circle, surrounded by kneeling students, Kennedy would hold a football helmet in the air and lead the students in prayer in full view of the assembled parents and as well as the students of the opposing team.

Students playing for the team were pressured to participate in these religious ceremonies led by Kennedy. As the dissenting justices noted in their written opinion, “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.” 

Kennedy was in a position of authority over the students and had the power to make decisions that affected their participation in the sport. Meanwhile, it is well understood that juveniles do not have the same powers of resistance as adults when it comes to pressure from people in positions of authority, making the students subjected to these “prayer circles” especially vulnerable.

Sharon Eva

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