U.S. Supreme Court sided with public high school coach in free speech, religious freedom case – Education


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The United States Supreme Court has issued a decision that will have far-reaching effects on the ability of government entities to respond to religious and other speeches by public officials. In
Kennedy Schools v. Bremerton, the Court ruled that a public high school could not discipline or disadvantage a football coach for his practice of kneeling at the 50-yard line and praying at the end of each game, ending up including most of the football team and opposing players as well. The school district had attempted to accommodate the coach’s prayerful desire, but concerns grew when a parent complained that his son felt pressured to participate despite being atheist. The coach was eventually placed on administrative leave and did not offer to return to coaching the following school year. The District Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit dismissed Coach’s First Amendment challenges.

With a 6-3 majority, the Supreme Court backtracked. In doing so, the Court first found a violation of the free exercise clause. The Court dismissed concerns expressed by the school district that the coach’s practice might violate the Establishment Clause or interfere with students’ right to free exercise. The Court held that in the absence of evidence of “direct” coercion, the Establishment Clause was not engaged and went on to conclude that the coach’s position of authority over the players was insufficient to constitute a direct coercion. The Court singled out previous cases involving prayers at football matches and civic meetings, pointing out that the speech for which the coach was sanctioned was not publicly broadcast or recited to a captive audience. Also, students were not required or officially required to participate.

On the issue of free speech, the Court found that the coach’s prayers were not unprotected “government speech” and in doing so applied a restrictive view of what could be considered as “governmental discourse”. The Court held that since the coach’s duties did not include leading prayers, the fact that the speech took place on the pitch immediately after the game was insufficient to turn it from a private speech into a government speech. “To hold otherwise,” the Court said, “would be to treat religious expression as second-class speech and to eviscerate this Court’s repeated promise that teachers do not “give up their constitutional rights to freedom of expression or expression at the school gate”.

The decision, accompanied Shurtleff v. Boston decided earlier this mandate, suggests a clear break with the Court’s previous jurisprudence on the balance between the precepts of the establishment and free exercise clauses. Government entities should review their policies on religious activities on government property or by employees related to their positions in light of these two rulings.

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