The US supreme court on Monday expanded the religious rights of government employees by ruling in favor of a Christian former public high school football coach in Washington state who sued after being suspended from his job for refusing to stop leading prayers with players on the field after games .
In the latest of a series of supreme court rulings taking a broad view of religious liberty, the justices in a 6-3 decision sided with Joseph Kennedy, who until 2015 served as a part-time assistant football coach in the city of Bremerton and has since become a cause celebre for conservative Christian activists.
Powered by its conservative majority, the supreme court in recent years has expanded individual and corporate religious rights while narrowing the separation between church and state.
The Bremerton school district argued that Kennedy “made a spectacle” of delivering prayers and speeches, invited students to join him and courted media attention while acting in his capacity as a government employee. Some parents said their children felt compelled to participate.
The San Francisco-based ninth US circuit court of appeals last year ruled against Kennedy, finding that if they let his actions continue local officials would have violated the ban on government establishment of religion that is embedded in the first amendment of the federal constitution.
Kennedy served as a coach at his alma mater, Bremerton high school, from 2008 to 2015. His lawyers assert that he “lost his job” because of his actions and sued in 2016. Kennedy’s suit sought a court order to be reinstated as a coach , accusing officials of religious discrimination and violating his free speech rights.
Kennedy initially appeared to comply with directions to stop the prayers while on duty, the district said, but he later refused and made media appearances publicizing the dispute, attracting national attention. After repeated defiance, he was placed on paid leave from his seasonal contract and did not re-apply as a coach for the subsequent season.
Officials have pointed out that Kennedy no longer lives in the school district and has moved to Florida. He has said he would return if he got his job back.
First Liberty Institute, a conservative religious rights group, helped represent Kennedy in the case.
Kennedy’s victory was only the latest in a series of rulings on religious rights that the supreme court has issued this year.
On June 21, it endorsed the use of public money to pay for students to attend religious schools in a Maine case. On May 2, it backed a Christian group that sought to fly a flag emblazoned with a cross at Boston city hall. On 24 March, he directed Texas to grant a convicted murderer on death row his request for him to have his Christian pastor lay hands on him and audibly pray during his execution of him.
In other religious rights rulings in recent years, the supreme court broke down barriers for public money to go to religious schools and churches and exempted family-owned corporations from a federal requirement regarding employee insurance coverage for women’s birth control on religious grounds.
It also sided with a Catholic organization receiving public money that barred LGBT people from applying to be foster parents and backed a Christian baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism