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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

The football coach at prayer

Will teachers be free to lead Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Wiccan prayers in algebra class? Not really.

A football coach has a First Amendment right to pray on the field after the game, even if players join him, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kennedy v. Bremerton.

Coach Joseph Kennedy stopped leading locker-room prayers before football games when asked to do so by the school district, but continued to kneel and pray at the 50-yard line after games. Some students from his team and opposing teams joined him, and "over time he began to deliver a short, inspirational talk with religious references," reports AP.

When he was fired, Kennedy sued, claiming his rights to free speech and free exercise of religion were violated.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the 6-3 opinion, said that the coach was praying on his own time, which makes it "private speech" rather than a school activity.

It's likely the Court will be more open to prayer at graduation ceremonies and other traditional practices, writes Joshua Dunn on Education Next. Public-school teachers will have more free-speech rights.

The majority opinion rejects the old Lemon Test on religious entanglement, which has proven "unworkable," writes Dunn. A professor of political science, he is director of the Center for the Study of Government and the Individual at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.

(The Lemon Test) was ridiculed as the 'Two Rudolphs and a Frosty Rule' or the 'Plastic Reindeer Rule'" because "public schools had to be certain that any Christmas display also included symbols from other either secular or religious celebrations of the winter solstice.
The court said that ruling against Kennedy would have also authorized firing a Muslim teacher for wearing a headscarf or a Christian teacher for praying over “her lunch in the cafeteria.”

"The government cannot coerce citizens to engage in religious practices," the Court ruled. "future legal controversies will hinge on how the court defines coercion," writes Dunn. Is peer pressure enough?

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