Supreme Court rejects one school prayer case, but suggests it's open to hearing others
The Supreme Court will not hear the case of a Washington state high school football coach, who claims his First Amendment rights were violated when he was fired in 2015 for praying on the 50-yard line after games and ignoring district officials’ warning to discontinue the practice, The 74 reports.
Justice Samuel A. Alito wrote that the decision to not hear the case doesn’t mean the court agrees with Coach Joseph Kennedy's firing from Bremerton High School, noting that the case had “unresolved factual questions” that would complicate a decision on free speech grounds.
The 74 suggests that with this reasoning, the court seems to be asking for others to present cases that are more testable, and Western Michigan University Assistant Professor Brett Geier says he believes its new conservative majority will seek cases that pertain to prayer in public school for both students and employees.
Up until now, the U.S. Supreme Court has drawn a firm line against school-sponsored prayer. Religion in schools is one of the most hotly disputed issues in the country, and this decision indicates that its stance may be changing.
The addition of conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the bench may mean cases tried before the nation’s highest court will lean in favor of religion in schools, effectively altering the separation of church and state on that front.
Already, religion-in-school fires are cropping up around the country. On Wednesday, both Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Bossier Parish School Board claimed to win a settlement in a year-long dispute over the promotion of Christianity in the Benton, Louisiana, district. A year ago, the Americans United group filed a federal lawsuit alleging school teachers and officials proselytized Christianity in schools.
The settlement included a revised religious expression policy that includes a commitment to protect the rights of all Bossier students to pray in school, as long as the prayers are initiated by students, aren’t disruptive, and don’t occur during class time. It also allows for teachers to instruct about religion objectively, but not promote it to students. The school board points out that students can still pray at school events, employees can bow their heads during prayers, religious clubs can meet at schools, and students can express their views and distribute literature.
Ultimately, the actions recently taken by the Supreme Court indicate districts should prepare for more disputes over religion in school and be prepared with policies that address freedom of speech, particularly as it relates to the complexities that come with serving diverse student bodies that span a variety of religious beliefs or no religious affiliation at all. Being proactive could save districts precious resources, defusing tensions before they can become a larger dispute.