In its decision in the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton, the Supreme Court has sided with a coach who made students feel pressured to join him in prayer. Joseph Kennedy, a high school football coach in Washington state, was put on paid leave by the Bremerton School District in 2015 after the district learned he had been praying publicly with his players in his capacity as a coach. Though Kennedy claimed he neither coerced nor encouraged his players to pray with him, several players reported feeling pressured to join him. The Court unsurprisingly ruled 6-3 in favor of Kennedy, arguing that his prayer constituted free religious speech under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
In his majority opinion, Justice Gorsuch officially tossed out the Lemon test, a long-standing legal precedent used to determine whether religious speech violated the Establishment Clause. In its place, Gorsuch and the majority argue that religious speech is legal when it fits with the “original meaning and history” of the Establishment Clause, employing the same harmful logic that the majority used to overturn Roe v. Wade just last week. Justice Sotomayor described it best in her dissent, stating that the Court’s decision “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.” She adds that “[a]s much as the Court protests otherwise, today’s decision is no victory for religious liberty.”
The Secular Coalition for America rejects the premise that Kennedy’s prayers were “private” and “personal.” Instead, they were overt displays of Christianity performed publicly by Kennedy in his capacity as an employee of a public school district, indirectly coercing and pressuring public school students even if Kennedy claims he never directly encouraged his players to join him. This decision is made even worse by the Court’s reckless disposal of the Lemon test, which opens the door to further encroachment of religion into our public schools.
This slew of decisions in Carson, Dobbs, and others that lend tacit support to the Christian nationalist movement demonstrate the clear and pressing need for the political mobilization of the nonreligious community. The SCA remains committed in its advocacy for all students, regardless of their faith or lack thereof, and for the right to a public education free from religious coercion.