An American football coach who was put on paid leave after praying on the field before games, has had his actions upheld by the US Supreme Court.
America’s highest court ruled on Monday the Christian coach’s prayers were protected by the First Amendment – freedom of speech.
Joseph Kennedy, who until 2015 was the part-time assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington state, sued after being suspended from his job for refusing to stop leading prayers with players on the field after games.
Justices on the Supreme Court rejected the school’s concerns Mr Kennedy’s prayers and Christian-infused speeches could be seen as “coercive to students or a governmental endorsement of a particular religion”.
The court ruled 6-3 in favour of the coach with the court’s conservative, right-leaning justices in the majority and its liberals in dissent.
The decision is the latest in a line of Supreme Court rulings for religious plaintiffs.
In another recent example, the court ruled that Maine can no longer exclude religious schools from a programme that offers tuition aid for private education.
And it comes after last week’s overturning of the historic Roe v Wade case law that legalised abortion in America that has existed for almost 50 years.
More on Roe V Wade
BET awards: Janelle Monae and Taraji Henson hit out at Supreme Court
‘They’re all terrified’: Patients ‘panic’ at Mississippi’s last abortion clinic
Roe v Wade: Joe Biden looking for ‘solutions’ after Supreme Court’s abortion ruling as protests continue in Washington
- Roe v Wade
- US Supreme Court
Of coach Mr Kennedy’s case, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote: “The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.”
The case forced the justices to wrestle with how to balance the religious and free speech rights of teachers and coaches with the rights of students not to feel pressured into participating in religious practices.
The outcome could strengthen the acceptability of some religious practices in other public school settings.
In a “dissent” on Monday, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the decision “sets us further down a perilous path in forcing states to entangle themselves with religion”.
Mr Kennedy had initially prayed alone at the end of the high school team’s American football games.
Violating students’ rights
But students started joining him, and over time he began to deliver a short, inspirational talk with religious references.
He did that for years and led students in locker room prayers – but the school district learned what he was doing in 2015 and asked him to stop.
He stopped in the locker room and on the field but wanted to continue praying on the field himself, with students free to join if they wished.
Concerned about being sued for violating students’ religious freedom rights, the school asked him to stop his practice of kneeling and praying while still “on duty” as a coach after the game.
The school tried to work out a solution so Kennedy could pray privately before or after the game. When he continued to kneel and pray on the field, the school put him on paid leave.