July 25, 2024


Science It Works

School prayer Supreme Court case newest battle in education culture war

A Supreme Court case examining whether a high school football coach can pray on the field with students is the latest battle in the culture war over what themes belong in school — and what should be banned by law.

Joseph Kennedy, a football coach who routinely knelt in prayer on the sidelines of games, sued his Washington state school district after he said he lost his job in retaliation for his religious display.

Bremerton High School officials said they offered Kennedy alternatives to his prayer in public but ultimately suspended the coach because he refused orders to stop practicing his religion in such a visible way.


Justices heard oral arguments Monday in the case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, amid a heated national debate over what schools should and should not allow children to learn in school.

For example, liberals have increasingly criticized a conservative movement to limit instruction of gender and sexuality in younger grades.

They have accused conservatives of discriminating against gay and transgender children by excluding instruction that emphasizes progressive ideas about the polarizing social issues, while conservatives argue such topics should be left for parents to explain and for older children to learn.

The Supreme Court case focuses on the other side of the debate, about what themes are appropriate to expose children to, with the Bremerton School District arguing Kennedy’s prayer inappropriately coerced players into participating by creating a situation in which students could feel pressure to join a prayer they don’t believe.

Progressives have pushed for versions of their curriculum on issues such as race and sexuality that rarely include options allowing parents to opt their children out of divisive lessons, framing their arguments in moral terms that present the liberal instruction as right and opposition to them as morally wrong.

But Kennedy v. Bremerton focuses on a debate far older than the latest fronts in the education culture war: where, if anywhere, prayer fits in public school.

The legal teams for Kennedy and the school district have laid out starkly different explanations of what occurred on the sidelines of Bremerton football games.

“Frankly, depending on which version of the facts you believe, it’s an easy case either way,” Sanford Levinson, a constitutional scholar, told Harvard Law Today.

“If you accept the district’s description of what’s going on, then I think it is clearly constitutional to prohibit the coach from doing that,” Levinson said. “But if you accept the coach’s version of events, then he ought to win because he is a lone individual who just happens to be a coach, and when he goes to the 50-yard line to pray, he’s doing so simply as a private individual, hoping nobody will notice.”

The case will look closely at whether Kennedy’s sideline prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which bars any public official from sponsoring religious activity.

One of the most significant Establishment Clause cases, Engel v. Vitale, resulted in a ruling that kept prayer out of classrooms, regardless of whether participation in the prayer is required or whether the prayer is not generic and not tied to a religion.

That 1962 ruling found that because taxpayer dollars fund public schools, school workers can’t endorse any form of religion in the same way government workers can’t.

Kennedy’s legal team asked the Supreme Court in legal filings to address the question of “whether a public-school employee who says a brief, quiet prayer by himself while at school and visible to students is engaged in government speech that lacks any First Amendment protection.”

The legal team also asked whether a private prayer, if otherwise shielded by the First Amendment, could still be banned by the school under the Establishment Clause.

The school district, however, has argued that Kennedy’s practice of praying in such a public place while on the job as a coach and his habit of inviting students and other coaches to join him “could be coercive” to those present at the football games.

In some previous cases, the Supreme Court has limited the ability of school officials to pray in the presence of students, even if the prayers are technically voluntary.


Justices sided in 1992 with opponents of a school-related prayer that was recited outside the classroom. In Lee v. Weisman, a middle school principal invited a rabbi to lead a prayer at the school’s graduation ceremony, which was not mandatory for students.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the graduation ceremony prayer still presented students with pressure to participate, as any who wanted to attend their own graduation ceremony had to stand and observe the prayer regardless of their personal beliefs.

Justices appeared split Monday on whether they believed the First Amendment arguments laid out by Kennedy’s lawyer. Left-leaning justices seemingly cast doubt on whether the football coach had a protected right to pray on the job.