The US Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of the individuals’ right to engage in personal religious observance in school settings such as praying after sporting events.
“Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment,” Justice Neil Gorsuch said in the court’s written opinion. “And the only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisal rested on a mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”
Three justices dissented from the majority decision, arguing that the Constitution does not authorize or require public schools to embrace religious conduct by officials. Official-led prayer threatens students’ and parents’ rights to religious liberty under the First Amendment, the dissenting justices said.
“Today’s decision is particularly misguided because it elevates the religious rights of a school official, who voluntarily accepted public employment and the limits that public employment entails, over those of his students, who are required to attend school and who this Court has long recognized are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in the written dissenting opinion.
Justice Clarence Thomas noted in a written concurring opinion that the Supreme Court did not decide whether or how public employee’s First Amendment rights may be different from those enjoyed by the general public, or what burden a government employer must shoulder to justify restricting employees’ religious expression.
The case in question involved high school football coach Joseph Kennedy being fired because he prayed on the field after the conclusion of his team’s practice and matches. The Bremerton School District in the state of Washington fired Kennedy over concerns that allowing him to pray may be interpreted as endorsement of his religious beliefs.
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