Supreme Court sides with football coach who prayed after games. Here's a breakdown of the decision.

·6 min read

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Monday for a former high school football coach who prayed in the middle of the field after games, even though his school district was concerned students felt compelled to participate, in the court’s latest expression of support for religious freedom.

  • What was the ruling?: The high court ruled the coach, Joe Kennedy, enjoyed the First Amendment right to practice his religion, with the majority saying the Constitution promotes tolerance rather than suppression of religious beliefs.

  • What does the decision mean?:  The ruling demonstrates the extent to which the high court is now prioritizing the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment over concerns about separation of church and state. The decision also came a week after the high court ruled in a Maine case, Carson v. Makin, that schools offering religious instruction may be entitled to state tuition aid.

  • How did the nation react?: Political reaction was mixed. Former Vice President Mike Pence said it lifted restrictions on the free exercise of religion. But some advocates voiced concerns the decision would erode religious liberty by appearing to favor one group over another.

Here is what we know about the decision and its implications:

Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy answers questions after his legal case, Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, was argued before the Supreme Court on April 25,
Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy answers questions after his legal case, Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, was argued before the Supreme Court on April 25,

What was the ruling?

Kennedy was placed on administrative leave in 2015 from his job as an assistant coach at Bremerton High School, a public school near Seattle, because of a dispute about how the prayers were handled at the 50-yard line. The district didn’t renew his contract the following year.

When he challenged the decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled last year that Kennedy was acting as a public employee when he offered the prayers and so his actions were not protected by the First Amendment.

In a majority opinion written by Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, the high court reversed the appeals court and said Kennedy should be awarded an immediate victory in the case, called a summary judgment, on his First Amendment claims.

"The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike," Gorsuch wrote.

Why did three liberal justices dissent?

School officials said they offered Kennedy the option of praying elsewhere. But he countered that the accommodations were impractical because the spaces that officials offered were "insanely far away from my players." Kennedy said he never asked and pressured anyone else to pray with him.

In her dissent, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor included pictures of the prayer groups on the football field.

“The Constitution does not authorize, let alone require, public schools to embrace this conduct,” Sotomayor wrote. “Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents, as embodied in both the establishment clause and the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.”

How did the justices vote in Kennedy?

The court ruled 6-3 along ideological lines in favor of Kennedy.

The six justices in the majority were:

  • Chief Justice John Roberts

  • Associate Justice Clarence Thomas

  • Associate Justice Samuel Alito

  • Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch

  • Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh

  • Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett

Gorsuch wrote that the only meaningful justification for the school district's action against Kennedy rested on a “mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech.”

“The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination,” Gorsuch wrote.

The three justices who dissented were:

  • Associate Justice Stephen Breyer

  • Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor

  • AssociateJustice Elena Kagan

"It elevates one individual’s interest in personal religious exercise, in the exact time and place of that individual’s choosing, over society’s interest in protecting the separation between church and state, eroding the protections for religious liberty for all," Sotomayor wrote in her dissent.

From left, Justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagan, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Neil Gorsuch, Stephen Breyer, Amy Coney Barrett and Sonia Sotomayor.
From left, Justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagan, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Neil Gorsuch, Stephen Breyer, Amy Coney Barrett and Sonia Sotomayor.

What are the broader implications?

The First Amendment's establishment clause traditionally bars the government from establishing an official religion or expressing preference for a religion. In a 1962 case, Engel v. Vitale, the court ruled that public schools could not offer prayers, even if participation by students is voluntary.

But the rulings in the Kennedy case and the Maine tuition case demonstrate the extent to which the high court is now prioritizing the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment over the establishment clause that is meant to facilitate separation of church and state.

"Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s," Gorsuch wrote. "Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor."

1/16/2002 -- Washington, D.C. -- Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in her chambers at the Supreme Court building.
1/16/2002 -- Washington, D.C. -- Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in her chambers at the Supreme Court building.

What was the 'Lemon test'?

For decades, the court decided cases dealing with government, religion and concerns about separation of church and state under the establishment clause using the "Lemon test," named for its 1971 decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman. The court ruled in that case government policies must have a secular purpose, cannot advance or inhibit religion and cannot excessively entangle church and state.

In a 1984 concurring opinion that some lower courts have read as part of the Lemon test, Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor raised the idea that the justices should consider whether a policy amounts to an endorsement or disapproval of religion.

But in recent years the court has bypassed Lemon, and the Kennedy ruling openly dismissed it.

"This court long ago abandoned Lemon and its endorsement test offshoot," Gorsuch wrote. In her dissent, Sotomayor asserted the court had "overruled" Lemon.

What was Kennedy’s reaction?

"I’m still trying to process it," Kennedy told the Kitsap Sun. "I haven’t stopped smiling once and it feels like my whole soul is vibrating. It’s awesome, it hasn’t settled in, but it’s awesome.

Bremerton assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, at center in blue, is surrounded by Centralia High School football players after they took a knee and prayed with him on the field after the team's game against Bremerton on Oct. 16, 2015, in Bremerton, Wash.
Bremerton assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, at center in blue, is surrounded by Centralia High School football players after they took a knee and prayed with him on the field after the team's game against Bremerton on Oct. 16, 2015, in Bremerton, Wash.

What was the reaction to the decision?

Former Vice President Mike Pence, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, praised the decision and said he would continue to fight restrictions on religious freedom.

“Americans of faith do not turn their devotion off and on like a light switch, and we must reject any attempt by the government to control private religious expression – especially those who call on their faith when answering the call to participate in public service,” Pence said.

But Katy Joseph, policy director at the Interfaith Alliance, an advocacy group that also filed  friend-of-the court argument in the case, said the decision dismantled decades of progress because the coach’s prayer put football players in the position of participating or feeling less a part of the team.

“No student should ever be made to feel excluded – whether in the classroom or on the football field – because they don’t share the religious beliefs of their coaches, teachers, or fellow students,” Joseph said. “The First Amendment protects the right of all Americans to believe as we choose without fear of government coercion.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court upholds football coach's prayers: breakdown of decision

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