Supreme Court Decision Further Narrows Distance Between Church and State

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The Supreme Court’s current session has been politically divisive. As some commentators note that the court could soon face a legitimacy crisis, the court steps further and further out of sync with the majority of Americans. In the court’s latest case, it finds that a Washington school district violated the first amendment rights of a football coach who prayed on the field after games.

The school district fired the coach, Joe Kennedy, after he refused to pray in a location off the field following games. “The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike,” writes Neil Gorsuch in the majority opinion. 

School District Takes Issue with Public Display

Kennedy began his habit of praying on the field in 2008. However, initially, his prayers were silent and solitary, and the school district never made mention of it. Starting in 2015, some players began joining him on the field and the prayers became audible. The school district grew concerned, as this would take place while there were still spectators in the stands.

The school provided Kennedy with another location to hold these prayers, but he refused to take them up on this offer. After warning him multiple times, the district placed him on administrative leave, and eventually fired him altogether.

Supreme Court Diminishes Establishment Clause

“We are aware of no historically sound understanding of the Establishment Clause that begins to ‘(make) it necessary for government to be hostile to religion’ in this way,” Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. The Establishment Clause is a section of the First Amendment that specifies Congress may “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The justices split along party lines, with the six conservative justices siding with the coach, while the three liberal justices dissented. This is a common split in the current court and has resulted in many commentators questioning the court’s legitimacy. 

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Sonya Sotomayor, writing for the dissent, says that this decision will shrink the establishment clause and lower the separation of church and state in the US. “It 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 writes. 

This is the second case involving religion and school that the court has ruled on in the past week. Last week, the Supreme Court found that states had fewer ways to prevent private religious schools from accessing public funds.