The six conservatives on the Supreme Court, who purport to revere the Constitution, have a funny way of ignoring the parts of the document that go against their conclusions. We know of no other way to rationalize their blithe ruling letting a high school football coach lead post-game prayers on the 50-yard line.
Joe Kennedy’s religious expression, say the majority, should be treated like any other type of private speech — given wide latitude by his public employers. Instead, Kennedy — who’d previously led locker room prayers and other outward, on-the-clock attempts to share the Gospel with kids — got fired.
Understandably. The same First Amendment that protects freedom of speech and free exercise of religion explicitly forbids government “respecting an establishment of religion,” which is to say promoting a creed or even faith itself. Public schools, where teachers and coaches act in loco parentis, are the most crucial places to bar pressuring, proselytization and other such behavior by those on the payroll.
Whether or not this coach was technically off the clock in the minutes after the game, by engaging in performative prayer at the center of the field, he was effectively compelling his players — public school students over whom he has substantial influence — to participate.
We’ve never believed that American church-state separation is absolute. A teacher (or student) can wear a cross or a kippah or hijab. A church or synagogue should be able to rent out public school space on weekends, if that space is also made available to secular organizations. But a public employee prominently praying directly adjacent to an official event, with children under his sway still present, is far more forceful.
Kennedy is more than free to pray to Jesus, Allah, Buddha or Satan, and to proselytize, on his private time. Here, he knowingly and messily mixed his religious views with his taxpayer-funded responsibilities. That’s not his job. But it is the job of the courts to guard against religions and public schools commingling. After two bad rulings this term, they’ve failed at that.
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