Supreme Court Eviscerates Establishment Clause Protections in Praying Coach Case

Press Release

Issues

Church and State


June 27, 2022, Washington, D.C. – Today the Supreme Court’s conservative majority issued its ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, ruling 6-3 that a public-school football coach can lead prayers with students on public property without violating the First Amendment. The decision is yet another massive blow to the separation of church and state in our nation’s schools, following the Court’s conservatives’ other recent decision, Carson v. Makin, requiring Maine to subsidize private religious schools that may discriminate. 

This ruling clearly violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and will make schools far less inclusive for students whose teachers, coaches, or other staff lead public religious exercises from faiths different from their own. Justice Sotomayor noted in her dissent that the majority opinion gives the Establishment Clause “short shrift” as it falsely describes the facts of the case. It mischaracterized Coach Kennedy’s departure from the job and the coercion his students experienced. She highlights that the majority effectively overturned the “Lemon” test for Establishment Clause violations, even if the majority wasn’t willing to admit it.  

“Today’s decision is particularly misguided because it 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,” Sotomayor wrote. “In doing so, 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. As much as the Court protests otherwise, today’s decision is no victory for religious liberty.” 

Alliance for Justice President Rakim H.D. Brooks issued the following statement: 

“For decades, there has been a clear precedent that students should not be subjected to religious practice as part of their compulsory public-school education. The Supreme Court had been clear, for example, that a Jewish or Muslim student should not be subjected to a Christian prayer in the classroom or at a graduation ceremony. Today’s ruling eviscerates that tradition. The Court has opened the door to religious expression and pressure in our nation’s schools. Now, students will have to wonder if they will face disadvantages because they don’t openly participate in the religious practice of their teachers, coaches, or school administrators.  

“This outcome is the exact opposite of what the First Amendment requires. We must now be vigilant to ensure this ruling is not abused to enforce extremist and discriminatory religious beliefs in our schools.”