US supreme court backs right of coach to pray on pitch after games

‘Trigger laws’ in several states aimed at restricting abortion face legal challenges

A school football coach has a constitutional right to pray in public on the field after games, the US supreme court has ruled.

The decision on Monday is seen by legal observers as another example of the country’s top court allowing greater state involvement in religion.

It also came just days after the court eliminated a 50-year-old constitutional right to abortion after it struck down the 1973 Roe v Wade decision.

In a 6/3 majority ruling, Justice Neil Gorsuch said the football coach’s right to pray was protected by the US constitution’s guarantees of free speech and free exercise of religion.


The court said actions by the local school district were not warranted under a concern of violating the separation of church and state.

“The constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and non-religious views alike,” Justice Gorsuch wrote.

The case asked the court to balance the ability of public employees to follow and practise their faith against the government’s competing responsibility to protect children from coercion and to remain impartial on the issue of religion.

Organised prayers

Over the previous 60 years, the supreme court had rejected prayer in state schools, at least when it was officially required or part of a formal ceremony like a high school graduation.

As recently as 2000, the court ruled that organised prayers led by students at high school football games violated the constitution’s first amendment’s prohibition of government establishment of religion.

However, more recently the court, which was reshaped after former president Donald Trump appointed three new judges, has sided with religious conservatives.

Last week, the court said that the state of Maine could not exclude religious schools from an official scheme which provided education funding supports to students.

The supreme court’s three liberal justices dissented from the majority ruling on Monday.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that “this court consistently has recognised that school officials leading prayer is constitutionally impermissible”.

“Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents... The court now charts a different path.”'

‘Pretty cool’

The case on Monday concerned Joseph Kennedy, an assistant coach at a public high school in Bremerton, near Seattle in Washington state. For eight years, Mr Kennedy routinely prayed on the pitch after games, with students often joining him. He also led and participated in prayers in the dressing room. He later stopped this practice and did not defend it during the supreme court hearing.

In 2015, after an opposing coach told the principal at Mr Kennedy’s school that he thought it was “pretty cool” that Mr Kennedy was allowed to pray on the field, the school board instructed Mr Kennedy not to pray if it interfered with his duties or involved students. The two sides disagreed about whether Mr Kennedy had complied.

A school official recommended that the coach’s contract not be renewed for the 2016 season, and Mr Kennedy did not reapply for the position.

Meanwhile, the introduction of “trigger law” in several states aimed at banning or restricting abortion in the aftermath of the supreme court ruling last Friday has faced legal challenges.

In Louisiana, three abortion clinics on Monday said they would resume carrying out terminations after a judge temporarily blocked the introduction of its “trigger laws”.

Politicians in a number of states had passed legislation imposing bans or restrictions on abortion to be “triggered” in the event of the supreme court ever striking down the constitutional right to a termination under the Roe v Wade ruling.

In Utah at the weekend, the state’s Planned Parenthood association took legal action to try prevent a ban coming into effect after the supreme court ruling, arguing that it violated the state’s constitution.

In Florida, healthcare providers have sought a judge to block temporarily the state’s new ban on abortions after 15 weeks with some exceptions which is scheduled to take effect from next Friday.

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is the former Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent