Supreme Court disregards ‘separation of church and state’ in football coach prayer case: Justice Sotomayor

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Justice Sonia Sotomayor Monday accused the conservative majority on the Supreme Court of disregarding “separation of church and state” in a ruling for a high school football coach who was fired over postgame prayers. 

Sotomayor was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, dissenting in the 6-3 decision in the case called Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. The majority ruled that the coach, Joseph Kennedy, “was entitled to summary judgment on his First Amendment clams” in a lawsuit in which the coach was suing to be reinstated in his job. 

But the liberal justices said the majority was putting too much emphasis on this single individual’s rights when another part of the Constitution was also implicated. 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor led a liberal dissent Monday in a 6-3 case in which the Supreme Court ruled for a high school football coach who was fired for postgame prayers on the field. 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor led a liberal dissent Monday in a 6-3 case in which the Supreme Court ruled for a high school football coach who was fired for postgame prayers on the field.  (Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images)

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“Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents, as embodied in both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” Sotomayor wrote. “The Court now charts a different path, yet again paying almost exclusive attention to the Free Exercise Clause’s protection for individual religious exercise while giving short shrift to the Establishment Clause’s prohibition on state establishment of religion.”

Sotomayor said the decision “does a disservice” to schools, children and “our Nation’s longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state.” 

“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 added.

The Supreme Court Monday ruled for Joe Kennedy, who sued his school district after it fired him from his high school coaching position for leading postgame prayers. 

The Supreme Court Monday ruled for Joe Kennedy, who sued his school district after it fired him from his high school coaching position for leading postgame prayers.  (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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Justice Neil Gorsuch led the majority opinion, which was joined entirely by four other Republican-appointed justices. Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined Gorsuch’s opinion except for one part outlining a two-step method for ruling in school-related First Amendment cases.

“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic,” Gorsuch wrote. “Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance… And the only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisal rested on a mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress… religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech.”

But Sotomayor and her fellow liberal justices in their dissent said the majority is fundamentally misstating the facts. 

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They said Kennedy’s regular prayers at the 50-yard-line after games, which the district court found resulted in students feeling some pressure to join him, effectively became part of the school-sponsored event. Further, the justices said, the fact students were involved adds an increased obligation on Kennedy to remain secular. 

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the opinion in the Supreme Court's 6-3 Monday ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the opinion in the Supreme Court’s 6-3 Monday ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP, Pool, File)

“Today’s decision is particularly misguided because it elevates the religious rights of a school official, who voluntarily accepted public employment… 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.”

Sotomayor also said that “existing precedents do not require coercion to be explicit, particularly when children are involved.” Therefore, she said, “The Establishment Clause violation at hand is clear.” 

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The Monday opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District comes after the court last week issued blockbuster opinions in a New York gun case and an abortion case, which overturned Roe v. Wade. The justices have a handful of cases left to decide before its current term ends, including one on immigration and another on environmental regulation.

Fox News’ Ronn Blitzer, Bill Mears and Shannon Bream contributed to this report. 

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