Lambda Legal: Supreme Court Today Greenlights More Sectarian Prayer in Public Schools

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June 27, 2022

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court continued its alarming and misguided practice of mixing government and religion. It further limited public school officials’ ability to protect students from imposition of religion by school authority figures by approving the explicitly Christian exercise of religion of a public high school football coach who insisted on kneeling on the 50-yard-line of a public high school football field at the conclusion of games and inviting the student athletes to join him in Christian prayer. Lambda Legal’s Acting Chief Legal Officer Jennifer C. Pizer, co-author of Lambda Legal’s friend-of-the-court brief in the case, issued the following statement:

“The Supreme Court today has done yet more damage to the U.S Constitution, and the cherished freedoms OF religion – and FROM religion – which are written as equally important protections in the First Amendment. This decision sidelines decades of thoughtful, settled precedent recognizing that explicitly sectarian demonstrations of religion by public school teachers and officials are by their very nature coercive and unavoidably convey illegal governmental endorsement.

“Coach Kennedy’s assertion that his post-game prayers were private, and not coercive because players on his team were not required to join, ignores reality. There is hardly anything more public than kneeling and praying on the 50-yard-line at the end of the game, nor more coercive than one’s coach leading the prayer. The timing and location of this conspicuous religious conduct would lead any objective and reasonable observer to conclude that the school district supports this worship activity and these particular Christian beliefs at the expense of those who hold other religious beliefs or who identify as nonreligious.”

Greg Nevins, Senior Counsel and co-author with Pizer of Lambda Legal’s brief, added: “The future impact of this decision on LGBTQ students will be especially fraught. For the Court is forcing upon LGBTQ students – especially those who may have had to grapple with religious disapproval of their identity while developing their own personal relationships with religion and spirituality – an unconstitutional choice. They can conform to the religious practice of a public school authority figure who is the adult leader of their team or hold tightly to their own identities and values at the risk of marginalization. This is constitutionally wrong. Public schools are not the place for divisive religious debates, and young people seeking public education must be protected from dilemmas requiring them to pick between conformity with their peers and instructors, on the one hand, and honoring their deeply held beliefs, on the other. The Court leaves one avenue for possible relief – students themselves declaring that they feel coercion to participate, but that foists upon the vulnerable the very public confrontation with the teacher or coach they understandably are trying to avoid.”

The case is Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. The Court’s ruling available here:

Read Lambda Legal’s friend-of-the-court brief, filed with pro-bono co-counsel Stephen B. Kinnaird, Kecia Reynolds, Thomas Zaccaro, Kyle Jones, and Rachel Ofori of Paul Hastings LLP on behalf of People For the American Way and seven LGBTQ state and national civil rights organizations here: