By Kenneth Tiven in Washington
This week, the United States Supreme Court is hearing a case involving Christian prayer by a public school official who was removed from his job for leading prayers while working. The Bremerton, Wash., case has been in court since 2015 and has lost each time, but it’s back because the court seems favorably inclined towards religious behavior in the workplace. The case concerns Joseph Kennedy, a football coach, who prayed with his team before games and again on the field after the game. He was suspended and wants to be reinstated. If he wins with the conservative makeup of the Court’s majority, it will be a major change made possible by former President Donald Trump who will get three conservative justices stuck in the US Senate confirmation process.
The case was aided by the Republican political campaign to restore the “authority” of public schools to indoctrinate students with Christianity. The constitutional separation of church and state has never prevented Christian religious events in primary and secondary schools in recent decades, although most public schools have many non-Christian students. Religious intolerance is on the rise as a companion to Trump-endorsed nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiments.
Christian support for right-wing political thought has brought this back into the spotlight. The campaign is poised to succeed in court. Supporters of school prayer have, as a tactic, swapped the victim and the aggressor. Schools supporting prayer in the classroom or on the sports field believe that any attempt to limit it is a persecution of their beliefs. School supervisors, legislators, judges and parents opposed to the indoctrination of children are positioned as anti-Christian fanatics.
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The case is Kennedy v Bremerton School District, with the coach represented by the First Liberty Institute, a legal organization based in Plano, Texas. The coach said he never intended to create a “ruckus”. “This is me giving thanks after a football game. Simple enough,” said Kennedy, who was the junior varsity coach and assistant varsity coach at Bremerton High School in Washington state in 2015, when his prayers at the 50-yard line caused quite a stir.
After curtailing some religious expressions at the request of school administrators, Kennedy announced he would continue to kneel and pray after Bremerton’s return game in October. A few players from the other team joined him, along with a few spectators, who rushed from the stands and created what the district called a “circus on the pitch”. Conservative religious and legal groups have embraced the case, but have repeatedly lost in lower courts and at appeals as well.
Obtaining this rehearing, the coach’s attorneys, in their brief, argued:
“The First Amendment protects Kennedy’s prayer twice, public school employees have no constitutional right to inject prayer or proselytism into their official duties. … But schools cannot define the tasks of teachers and coaches as being so comprehensive that they deprive them of any right to individual expression on school grounds.
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The school district argued that Kennedy was an employee performing official duties, so his speech could be regulated. “The district is paying someone to speak and carry their message,” says Richard B Katskee, vice president and legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represents the school district.
About 65-70% of the American population is – among several sects and denominations – considered Christian, although today less than half of the population belongs to a church. Despite some reports to the contrary, Gallup Poll Daily tracking shows no evidence that church attendance in America has increased due to poor economic conditions; the 42% of Americans who say they have attended church regularly in the past few months is unchanged from the start of the year.
Originally, a federal district court as well as the San Francisco 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the coach’s injunction request. The case went to the Supreme Court in 2019. While the High Court refused review, four justices signed a statement saying that although they agreed on procedural grounds, they were troubled by the “understanding of free speech rights of educators” by the lower courts.
Judge Samuel Alito wrote the statement in 2019 saying, “The suggestion that even when off duty a teacher or coach may not engage in any outward manifestation of religious faith is remarkable.” Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh signed. The case then made its way back to other still-losing lower courts, but with the addition of Amy Comey Barret replacing liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the super conservative majority was ready to examine what she had said. about four years earlier.
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In fact, those justices, now joined by Barrett, have escalated their rhetoric about government “discrimination” against religious speech and exercise in the years since. They demanded special rights for religious groups and individuals while insisting that the separation of church and state is in fact unconstitutional. According to this view, the government is not prohibited from condoning or coercing religion in schools; it is necessary to do so. Kennedy pushes this principle to its logical extreme. The Court seems likely to consider that the First Amendment does not prohibit school officials from publicly praying at work, but rather protects their ability to mix church and state, regardless of the impact on students and their parents. .
—The writer has held senior positions at the Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and is also a consultant for several Indian channels