In a 6-3 split that should by now feel chillingly familiar, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the Washington State high school football coach who argued that he had a constitutional right to pray on the 50 yard line with his students after games.
Joseph Kennedy was an assistant high school football coach in Bremerton, Washington, who was placed on administrative leave when he refused to give up his tradition of praying on the field after games with players. He was also accused of infusing his motivational speeches with religious language.
Kennedy was initially asked to stop publicly praying on school grounds after an opposing team commented on his practice, which by that point had come to involve players. He took the directive as a dare, and quickly became the darling of conservatives, resulting in the spectacle of Kennedy being ushered off the field by security after throngs of supporters swooped in to join him on the field one night.
In a Facebook post afterward that garnered national attention, Kennedy wrote, “I think I just might have been fired for praying.”
Kennedy’s contract with the Bremerton schools was not renewed. When he sued the district, Kennedy cemented his role as a key player in a long-standing battle between conservative Christians and those who believe that the separation of church and places limits on activities like prayer in schools. The conservatives’ argument, as exemplified in Kennedy’s Facebook post, characterizes them as an oppressed minority that is being wrongfully attacked for practicing their religion.
Yet it’s difficult to imagine that the story would’ve come to the same conclusion if it had been a Muslim coach rolling onto the field after a game with his prayer mat and pointing it in the direction of Mecca.
The court split over two drastically different interpretations of Kennedy’s prayer. In the decision, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote, “a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance.”
But Kennedy was only allowed on the field in his role as assistant coach, and it’s hard to argue that the students who joined him didn’t feel pressured to do so.
In yet another necessary, passionate dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, she writes that the majority’s decision “elevates the religious rights of a school official, who voluntarily accepted public employment and the limits that public employment entails, over those of his students, who are required to attend school and who this Court has long recognized are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection.”
“In doing so,” Sotomayor continues, “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.”
The court, packed with Trump-appointed conservatives, had already ruled last week that religious schools in Maine cannot be excluded from a tuition assistance program run by the state.
In her dissent to that case, Sotomayor writes that she sees the court “shifting from a rule that permits States to decline to fund religious organizations to one that requires States in many circumstances to subsidize religious indoctrination with taxpayer dollars.”
Thanks to this new line-up at the highest court in the land, public employees are free to engage in religious activity while at work, but pregnant people in 8 states — and counting — aren’t free to govern over their own bodies.