WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court heard oral arguments April 25 to decide whether to side with a former high school football coach who said his postgame prayers on the field — that cost him his job — amounted to private speech and not the public school’s endorsement of religion.
During nearly two hours of oral arguments, several justices emphasized that private speech is still private, and protected by the First Amendment, even if it takes place on public grounds. But some justices also pointed out that this private prayer on the field could also seem coercive because players could feel like they should participate.
Prayer by teachers and coaches “kind of puts undue pressure on students to participate when they may not wish to,” said Justice Elena Kagan. “They feel like they have to join religious observations they don’t wish to join.”
Justice Brett Kavanaugh wondered about the player “who thinks, if I don’t participate in this, I won’t start next week. Every player is worried about playing time.”
The case involves Joseph Kennedy, former assistant coach at Bremerton High School, outside of Seattle, who had been told by school district officials to stop these prayers on the 50-yard line. When his contract was not renewed, he sued the school for violating his First Amendment rights.
A lower court agreed with the school district, bringing Kennedy to the nation’s high court seeking a reversal.
Kennedy’s lawyer, Paul Clement, stressed that the “government doesn’t endorse all private speech just because it takes place on school grounds,” and said there was no evidence that students felt coerced to join in.
But Richard Katskee, representing the school district, pointed out that Kennedy “insisted on giving audible prayers that students could join, and then he created a zoo on the field.”
The justices also brought up a number of hypothetical situations — such as coaches who cross themselves before a game or a math teacher who reads the Bible aloud before school starts.
The coach said he made a commitment to thank God after each game, win or lose, since he started coaching in 2008, and made it a point to kneel by the sideline after the game by himself for quiet prayer. Eventually, he was joined in this practice by many of the team members.
One player’s parent said their son, an atheist, felt like he had to join in prayer or face potential loss of playing time.
The Supreme Court decision in this case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, is expected in June.
Supreme Court examines
‘Remain in Mexico’ asylum rule
The Supreme Court heard nearly two hours of oral arguments April 26 on the Biden administration ending a Trump-era immigration policy called “Remain in Mexico.”
The policy in question is the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, which requires asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico until their cases can be heard in U.S. immigration courts. Immigration supporters, including many Catholic organizations, have spoken out against this policy. And during oral arguments, activists held a rally outside the Supreme Court holding signs with the message “safe not stranded.”
The policy was put in place in 2019. Once President Joe Biden took office in 2021, he paused the policy, then formally sought to end it a few months later in June. But in August of that year, after Texas and Missouri sued to maintain the program, a judge with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas told administration officials that they had to continue complying with the policy, saying they had not ended it properly.
Last December, a federal judge reinstated the program with some changes made by the Biden administration, including a pledge to resolve cases within six months and to pay for migrants’ transportation to and from hearings.
The question now before the nation’s high court is whether immigration officials must send asylum-seekers to Mexico or if they can allow them into the United States while they await their hearings.