Ian Millhouser, one of our best legal commentators, wrote at Vox about Justice Neil Gorsuch’s blatant misrepresentation of the facts in the case of the coach who was exonerated by the Supreme Court for praying at the 50-yard line after the game. Gorsuch’s factually inaccurate description of the case leaves a mess for educators and courts who want to know what sort of prayers are okay and which are forbidden. My personal hunch is that Gorsuch and his extremist allies intend to overrule the 1962 ban on prayer in public schools.
Kennedy v. Bremerton School District is a big victory for the religious right, but only because Gorsuch misrepresents the facts of the case.
But Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion for himself and his fellow Republican appointees relies on a bizarre misrepresentation of the case’s facts. He repeatedly claims that Joseph Kennedy, a former public school football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington state who ostentatiously prayed at the 50-yard line following football games — often joined by his players, members of the opposing team, and members of the general public — “offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied….”
Moreover, because Gorsuch’s opinion relies so heavily on false facts, the Court does not actually decide what the Constitution has to say about a coach who ostentatiously prays in the presence of students and the public. Instead, it decides a fabricated case about a coach who merely engaged in “private” and “quiet” prayer.
If the facts of Kennedy actually resembled the made-up facts laid out in Gorsuch’s opinion, then Kennedy would have reached the correct result. Even under Lemon, a public school employee is typically permitted to quietly pray while they are not actively engaged with students….
In the real case that was actually before the Supreme Court, Coach Kennedy incorporated “motivational” prayers into his coaching. Eventually, these prayers matured into public, after-game sessions, where both Kennedy’s players and players on the other team would kneel around Kennedy as he held up helmets from both teams and led students in prayer.
After games, Kennedy would also walk out to the 50-yard line, where he would kneel and pray in front of students and spectators. Initially, he did so alone, but after a few games students started to join him — eventually, a majority of his players did so. One parent complained to the school district that his son “felt compelled to participate,” despite being an atheist, because the student feared “he wouldn’t get to play as much if he didn’t participate.”
When the Bremerton school district learned of Kennedy’s behavior, it told him to knock it off — though it did offer to accommodate Kennedy if he wanted to pray when he wasn’t surrounded by students and spectators. And Kennedy did end some of his most extravagant behavior, such as the prayer sessions where he held up the helmets while surrounded by kneeling students.
But Kennedy also went on a media tour, presenting himself as a coach who “made a commitment with God” to outlets ranging from local newspapers to Good Morning America. And Kennedy’s lawyer informed the school district that the coach would resume praying at the 50-yard line immediately after games.
At the next game following this tour, coaches, players, and members of the public mobbed the field when Kennedy knelt to pray. A federal appeals court described this mob as a “stampede,” and the school principal said that he “saw people fall” and that, due to the crush of people, the district was unable “to keep kids safe.” Members of the school’s marching band were knocked over by the crowds.
And, contrary to Gorsuch’s repeated claims that Kennedy only wanted to offer a “short, private, personal prayer,” Kennedy was surrounded by players, reporters, and members of the public when he conducted his prayer session after that game. We know this because Justice Sonia Sotomayor includes a picture of the scene in her dissenting opinion.
The religious right won a big case. Where will schools draw the line? Will every religion be free to have its own prayers at school?
My prediction: The Supreme Court is building a path to restore prayer in the schools, reversing Engel v. Vitale (1962). Will every religion get its own prayers? Or will there be a single religion imposed on everyone? Or a nonsectarian religious prayer?