WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a high school soccer coach had the constitutional right to pray on the 50-yard line after his team’s games.
The vote was 6 to 3, with the three Liberal members of the court disagreeing. The decision came less than a week after a similarly-voted court ruled that Maine could not exclude religious schools from a curriculum, and it was the latest in a long line of decisions that have challenged the place of religion in public life, and in particular in society. the education.
Writing for the majority, Judge Neil M. Gorsuch said the prayers of the coach, Joseph Kennedy, were protected by the First Amendment.
“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse republic – whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or in a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head,” he wrote. “Here, a government agency was trying to punish a person for holding a short, silent, personal religious celebration.”
In disagreement, Judge Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the majority had strayed.
“Today’s decision,” she wrote, “is particularly misguided because it raises the religious rights of a school official, who voluntarily accepts public employment and the restrictions associated with public employment, from those of his students, who are obliged to school and that this court has long recognized that they are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection.”
“By doing this,” she wrote, “the court is putting us further down a dangerous path by forcing states to get entangled in religion when all of our rights are at stake.”
Mr. Kennedy said he was pleased with the decision.
“This is just so amazing,” he said in a statement. “All I ever wanted was to be back on the field with my boys.”
Rachel Laser, the president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who represented the school board in the case, lamented what she said was the latest in a series of mounting setbacks.
“Today, the court continued its assault on the separation of church and state, falsely describing coercive prayer as ‘personal’ and barring public schools from protecting the religious freedom of their students,” she said in a statement.
In the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District case, No. 21-418, the rights of government workers to freedom of expression and the free exercise of their faith were contrasted with the Constitution’s prohibition on government approval of religion and the ability of public employers to regulate speech in the workplace. The decision was at odds with decades-long Supreme Court precedents banning students from participating in religious activities.
Kennedy had served as an assistant coach at a public high school in Bremerton, Washington, near Seattle. For eight years, he routinely prayed after the games, often with students accompanying him. He also led and participated in locker room prayers, a practice he later abandoned and did not defend in the Supreme Court.
In 2015, after an opposing coach told the principal of Mr. Kennedy’s school that he thought it was “pretty cool” for Mr. Kennedy to be allowed to pray on the field, the school board instructed Mr. Kennedy not to pray if it hindered. his tasks or involved students. The two sides disagreed on whether Mr. Kennedy complied.
A school official advised against renewing the coach’s contract for the 2016 season, and Mr. Kennedy did not reapply for the position.
Majority and dissent offered vastly different explanations of what had happened in Mr. Kennedy’s final months.
Judge Gorsuch wrote that Mr. Kennedy had only tried to say a short, silent, and solitary prayer. Judge Sotomayor replied that the public nature of his prayers and his status as a leader and role model meant that students felt compelled to participate regardless of their religion and whether they wanted to or not.
Judge Gorsuch wrote that, at least after the games at stake in the case, the coach “quietly offered his prayers while his students were otherwise busy.”
Judge Sotomayor gave a different view of the facts, taking into account a longer term.
“Kennedy consistently invited others to join in prayer and led student-athletes in prayer for years,” she wrote. In an unusual move, the dissent included photos of Mr. Kennedy kneeling with players and others.
Judge Gorsuch wrote that Mr. Kennedy was not speaking on behalf of the school when he prayed.
“He did not instruct players, discuss strategy, encourage better on-field performance, or engage in any other speech the district paid him to produce as a coach,” Judge Gorsuch wrote.
Instead, he wrote, Mr. Kennedy took just a moment to pray while others checked their texts or greeted friends.
Not everything school workers do during work hours is official behavior, Judge Gorsuch wrote. If so, he said, “a school can fire a Muslim teacher for wearing a headscarf in class, or forbid a Christian assistant to pray quietly over her lunch in the cafeteria.”
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Judges Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Amy Comey Barrett joined the majority of Judge Gorsuch. Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh agreed.
In contradiction, Judge Sotomayor said Mr. Kennedy effectively forced students to pray with him.
“Students look up to their teachers and coaches as role models and seek their approval,” she wrote. “Students also depend on this approval for tangible benefits. Players recognize that getting the coach’s approval can pay dividends big and small, from extra playing time to a stronger letter of recommendation to additional support in athletic college recruiting.
Judge Gorsuch replied that he “rejected the view that the only acceptable government role models for students are those who eschew any visible religious expression.”
In the trial for Mr. Kennedy, the majority rejected an important precedent on the First Amendment’s founding clause, Lemon v. Kurtzman. That 1971 ruling included what came to be known as the Lemon test, which requires courts to assess whether the challenged government practice has a secular purpose, whether its primary effect is to promote or inhibit religion, and whether it excessive government promotes entanglement with religion.
In Justice Gorsuch’s report, the Lemon test was already discarded. But Judge Sotomayor wrote that the majority had just rejected it.
She acknowledged that the test had been widely criticized by several members of the court. “The court now goes much further,” she wrote, “by ignoring Lemon completely and in all contexts.”
Judges Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan joined Judge Sotomayor’s disagreement.
For the past 60 years, the Supreme Court has rejected prayers in public schools, at least when officially required or as part of a formal ceremony such as a graduation. As late as 2000, the court ruled that organized prayers led by students at high school football games violated the First Amendment’s ban on the government’s establishment of religion.
“Saying a pregame prayer has the inappropriate effect of forcing those present to participate in an act of religious worship,” Judge John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority in that case.
Judge Gorsuch wrote that those precedents did not apply to Mr. Kennedy’s conduct.
“The prayers for which Mr. Kennedy was disciplined were not broadcast publicly or recited in front of a captive audience,” he wrote. “Students were not required or expected to participate.”
Justice Gorsuch said the message of the decision in favor of Mr. Kennedy was clear.
“The Constitution and the best of our traditions,” he wrote, “consult mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and oppression, both for religious and non-religious views.”