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The Supreme Court Dealt A Big Blow To The Separation Of Church And State

On Monday, the Supreme Court released an opinion that could erode the separation between church and state. In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the court’s conservative majority ruled that a public high school football coach was within his rights to pray at midfield after games. In doing so, the court abandoned a decades-long precedent on how the First Amendment is interpreted.


The Supreme Court recently ruled that a public high school football coach has a constitutional right to pray on the field after his team’s games. It’s yet another seismic ruling from the court’s six conservative justices this term — and a big blow to the separation of church and state.

This case is about Joe Kennedy, a football coach at a public high school in Bremerton, Washington. For seven years, Kennedy would kneel in prayer on the 50-yard line after games, and students would often join him. First he prayed alone quietly, but then, when players from both teams started gathering around him, he led them all in prayer. When school officials found out this was happening, they told Kennedy he could continue giving motivational speeches only as long as they remained secular, because doing otherwise would give the impression that the school was endorsing a particular faith. Kennedy wouldn’t stop and was placed on paid administrative leave. Eventually, he decided not to renew his contract.

The case is a clash of three parts of the First Amendment. Kennedy’s lawyers argued that offering a private prayer is actually covered by one part of the First Amendment — the right to free speech. They said Kennedy didn’t lose that right just because he was on school property. And they argued that the school shouldn’t ban his religious expression, which according to them is protected under the part of the First Amendment that says people can freely exercise their religion.

But the school says that Kennedy was violating another part of the First Amendment — the part that says the state can’t establish a religion. In the context of public schools, that’s generally interpreted to mean that they and their employees should remain neutral toward religion. They can’t elevate one religion over another. And even though Kennedy wasn’t explicitly requiring his players to pray, there’s a long line of cases where the courts have said that public school employees are not allowed to pressure students into prayer — which was arguably what Kennedy was doing as the team’s coach. At least one student worried that Kennedy wouldn’t play him as much if he didn’t pray.

On its face, the case may not seem groundbreaking, and the court’s decision may be pretty popular. An early June poll by YouGov and The Economist found that 52 percent of Americans think the coach should be able to offer a public prayer. But with this ruling, the justices abandoned a 50-year-old legal test for determining whether the government is violating the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. Instead, they said that cases should be evaluated in light of the historical traditions of the First Amendment — traditions stemming from the late 18th century, when America was a far less religiously diverse nation.

This case also reinforces a bigger trend: The conservative justices tend to rule in favor of religious plaintiffs. One recent study found that the court under Chief Justice John Roberts had a pro-religion ruling in 83 percent of its cases through the 2020 term. Most of the time, that meant they were ruling in favor of Christians. So, in setting a new precedent with this case, the court could further erode the separation of church and state in the years to come.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Anna Rothschild was FiveThirtyEight’s senior producer for video.


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