The United States Supreme Court is allowing prayer to return to public schools. This is disturbing | Moira Donegan

EITHEROn Monday, the United States Supreme Court overturned decades of precedent governing the separation of church and state, achieving one of the Christian right’s oldest goals: the return of official Christian prayer to public schools.

Kennedy v Bremerton School District had a strange path to the supreme court. Initially filed in 2015, the case concerns Joseph Kennedy, a former suburban Seattle public high school football coach who sued the community that used to employ him for religious discrimination after the school objected to his habit of saying prayers. public and ostentatious Christian women on the 50-yard line at football games, surrounded by young jocks. Kennedy has lost at the district and circuit levels; he moved to Florida in 2019, which technically should have made his case moot. But the supreme court agreed to hear his case anyway. This week they ruled in their favor, 6-3.

The facts of what happened to Coach Kennedy in the school district are disputed, but only because Kennedy himself keeps checking on them. In allowing Coach Kennedy to pray publicly at school while performing his official duties as a public servant, Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the majority, characterized the prayers this way: “Mr. Kennedy prayed during a time when school employees were free to talk to a friend, call to make a restaurant reservation, check email or attend to other personal matters. He offered his prayers silently while his students were busy with other things.”

Sam Alito, in his concurrence, stated that Kennedy “acted in a purely private capacity.” That is Kennedy’s version of events. But the evidence suggests things looked different. In her dissent, Judge Sonya Sotomayor questioned the idea that the coach offered his prayers “in silence, while her students were busy.” She included a picture of Coach Kennedy in one of his nightly prayers. In the picture, he is surrounded by a dense group of dozens of uniformed high school football players kneeling at his feet. Kennedy speaks with a football helmet in his hand, stretched above his head in what appears to be a gesture of command. Spectators can be seen in the background, watching from the stands. Quiet and private this was not.

The court held that the school was required to allow this: that by attempting to maintain the separation of church and state, as required by the establishment clause of the first amendment, they were actually infringing on Coach Kennedy’s free exercise rights. Thus, the court allowed the free exercise clause to effectively challenge the establishment clause, denying Americans like Coach Kennedy’s students the freedom of religion that the church-state divide had previously granted them. It should not escape our notice that in making this ruling and overturning a decades-old test of the effectiveness of church-state separation measures, the court relied on a version of events that is blatantly and demonstrably false. .

All of this could have been avoided because, in fact, during the course of Kennedy’s employment, the school district struggled to balance the coach’s desire for prayer with its own obligations to remain religiously neutral. Since he began coaching in 2008, Kennedy, an evangelical Christian, initially prayed to himself at games, a practice no one had a problem with. He says he had the initial idea for a movie, the 2006 low-budget Christian football drama “Facing the Giants,” which he saw on television. The film features a fictional coach who prays with his high school football team. But at some point, Kennedy’s prayers became louder and more public. He would stand on the 50-yard line just after the final whistle and pray out loud. Teenage athletes, both from his team and from the opposing side, knelt with him in a grand scrum; Kennedy mixed his prayers with pep talk. Kennedy says that the visible center of the field was an important place for him. “It made sense to do it on the battlefield,” he told reporter Adam Liptak.

It is these public prayers, delivered while Kennedy was acting in his official capacity as coach, that became a problem. The school tried to accommodate Kennedy, offering him ways to exercise his faith that did not involve students, and did not risk giving the impression that his religion was endorsed by the public school. Kennedy refused and sought a lawyer. He eventually dropped out of school, voluntarily, and began claiming that the district’s policies amounted to both religious discrimination and a violation of his free speech rights.

Kennedy and the First Liberty Institute, the conservative legal group funding his lawsuit, have tried to portray him as a First Amendment hero. Prior to his departure from Bremerton, Kennedy spent months working with his media-savvy legal team to draw attention to his own sentences. Football games turned into a chaotic mess of culture warfare politics, with reporters, politicians and evangelical Christians flocking to the field to witness Kennedy’s displays and join him in prayer. Parents complained about the chaotic “stampedes” of Kennedy fans, who ran with outstretched phones through the stands to join their prayer circles at the end of games, sometimes knocking people over. The players felt uncomfortable, and one told his father that he feared that if he didn’t pray, “he wouldn’t be able to play as much.” Other trainers weren’t thrilled either. In effect, school district-sponsored football games became more Kennedy’s religious practice than football itself.

As it has done with increasing frequency during this period, the court threw out a long-standing precedent to secure a conservative outcome in Kennedy: Lemon v Kurtzman, the 1971 case that established a three-part test for compliance. of the Establishment Clause. The new right-wing court, it seems, is not at all interested in compliance with the Establishment Clause. By ruling in favor of Kennedy, they have opened the door for any Christian public official to claim that they are being discriminated against if limits are placed on their religious expression during the performance of their duties, and that they endanger any public body that attempts to maintain a separation between the private religious actions of its employees and those of public officials. And they have made America’s public schools vulnerable to the religious proclivities of their teachers and administrators, which can now be exercised in ways that coerce student participation.

The Supreme Court seems willing to allow this. Why? Because his conservative supermajority has taken a radically expansionist view of the First Amendment’s free exercise clause, interpreting the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion in a way that effectively tramples on the freedoms of others. An emerging trend in conservative thought, supported by a growing body of case law emerging from the Republican-controlled federal court, has begun to frame what were once considered standard features of separation of church and state as oppressive discrimination against the Christians.

It is an absurd argument, one that would not stand in this court if brought by a non-Christian. But Kennedy got a sympathetic ear and a maximalist decision. “That’s protected speech,” Amy Coney Barrett bluntly stated of Kennedy’s prayer circles in oral arguments. For Christians, at least, the Supreme Court has redefined religious freedom as a religious privilege.

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