WASHINGTON (AP) — A coach who crosses himself before a game. Before the bell rings, a math teacher will read aloud the Bible. A coach who hosts an after school Christian group at their house.
All those scenarios were discussed Monday by Supreme Court justices as they heard arguments from a Washington state former high school football coach who wanted to pray and kneel on the field following games. The justices struggled to find a balance between the religious and freedom speech rights of coaches and teachers, and the right of students not being pressured into participation.
“This doesn’t seem like a new problem,” Justice Stephen Breyer said at one point during arguments at the high court that lasted nearly two hours, despite being scheduled for just one.
The justices raised other actions that teachers and coaches might take, such as wearing ashes to Ash Wednesday, kneeling during anti-racism songs, or putting up political signs in their yards. An ex-NFL player Tim Tebow is known for kneeling during prayer on the field. Mohamed Salah from Egypt, a Muslim soccer star who touches his forehead to ground after scoring a goal, was also mentioned.
Joseph Kennedy is a former coach of football at Bremerton High School in Bremerton (Washington). The coach used to kneel in the middle of the field after games and lead prayer sessions with students for many years. After learning what he was doing, the school district asked him to stop.
Kennedy wanted to lead students in prayer, even though he was no longer leading them. However, he still wanted to pray and students could join him. His lawyers say the Constitution’s freedom of speech and freedom of religion guarantees should allow that practice.
But the school district has said Kennedy’s religious speech interfered with students’ own religious freedom rights and could have the effect of pressuring students to pray and opened the district itself to lawsuits. The school district says it tried to work out a solution so Kennedy could pray privately before or after the game, including on the field after students left, but Kennedy’s lawsuit followed.
The court is hearing the case at a time conservative justices are making a majority and are sympathetic to religious groups and individuals, such as groups challenging coronavirus restrictions applied to houses and worship.