The US Supreme Court once again has signaled its intent to wreak havoc upon the constitutional principle of separation between state and church by accepting an outlier appeal from a religious litigant — in this case today accepting a challenge from prayerful Coach Joe Kennedy.
Kennedy, a Fox TV media darling, was heralded by former President Trump at a White House event. This is the second time Kennedy had sought a review of his case by the high court.
The Bremerton High School football coach back in 2015 was told by his school district to cease praying with football students. He would routinely invite his team and opposing coaches and teams to pray, praying aloud while students and other participants knelt. When the school district told him to stop this practice, he vowed to continue conducting prayer on the 50-yard line with students.
FFRF wrote a firm letter backing up the district’s action, pointing out it is unconstitutional for public school staff to lead students in prayer or conduct religious activities around their students. The school district placed the insubordinate coach on leave. When his contract expired, Kennedy sued, with the help of the Christian nationalist First Liberty Institute, based in Texas.
Lower courts properly ruled in favor of the high school, which is what makes the decision by the Supreme Court to accept his appeal so troubling, as it of course indicates they disagree with the lower court.
Violations by praying coaches are among the most common reports the Freedom From Religion Foundation deals with regarding religion in the schools.
"By granting review in this case, the Supreme Court is threatening to upend decades of strong separation of state and church precedent in our public schools,” comments FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert. “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.”
Markert reported that FFRF will be working on an amicus brief to ensure nonbelievers' voices are heard on this important issue.
Contrary to Kennedy’s phony narrative that his free speech rights are being abrogated, the case is about the rights of conscience of public school students, which can be upheld only when our secular public schools are free of indoctrination, religious rituals or coercion.
The high court has recently accepted two other high-profile Establishment Clause cases, including by a group demanding to place a “Christian flag” on the Boston City flag pole, and another by parents demanding that taxpayers bankroll their children’s tuition at religious high schools in Maine. FFRF has submitted amicus briefs in both the Boston flag and Maine voucher cases.
In recent years, the high court has dramatically eviscerated constitutional precedent against mixing religion and government. In a recent Montana case, it invalidated a “no aid” to religion clause in a state constitution in order to permit school voucher money to benefit religious schools. It also approved, under narrow grounds, an appeal by Catholic Social Services demanding the right to contract with the city of Philadelphia to provide foster care services, even though the religious group discriminated against LGBTQ applicants. In 2019, the high court ruled that a 40-foot-tall Christian cross owned and maintained by the government did not violate the Establishment Clause.
“The ultraconservative majority on the Supreme Court seems to be as out of control as the omicron variant,” warns Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “The cherished secular principle our nation is predicated on is soon going to be on life support if we don’t see court reform.”
FFRF, founded as a 501(c)(3) educational organization in 1978, is a national association of 35,000 freethinkers (atheists and agnostics), which works to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state.