Washington D.C.—Today, the church-state separation watchdog American Atheists expressed shock and disgust at the Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton to allow staff-led prayer in the public school system.
Today’s decision overturned decades of Supreme Court precedent, explicitly abandoning the Lemon test and allowing school officials to inject their own religion into public school classrooms. In 1963, the Supreme Court struck down mandatory classroom prayer in Abington School District v. Schempp, which was consolidated with a case brought by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists.
“The Supreme Court just opened the door for coercive prayer to return to our schools. It shows just how far toward theocracy we’ve slid in recent years,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “Students are, and always have been, allowed to pray. But giving coaches, teachers, and other authority figures the green light to engage in the sort of coercive prayer at issue here is nothing less than an outright assault on the religious freedom of young people by this out-of-control Court.”
The case decided today involves a football coach, Joseph Kennedy, who said he “made a commitment with God” to proselytize. After each game, Kennedy encouraged players from both teams to kneel around him at the 50-yard line as he held up each team’s helmet and led students in prayer.
“The Supreme Court will inflict serious damage on students with this decision,” warned Geoffrey T. Blackwell, Litigation Counsel for American Atheists. “Coaches greatly influence the lives of student athletes, both on and off the field. They determine whether students sit or play—even whether they have a shot at a full-tuition college scholarship. Whether intentional or not, Kennedy’s behavior coerced students to pray so they could stay on their coach’s good side and get playing time.”
Following Kennedy’s proselytizing, the Bremerton School District stepped in to protect students’ freedom of religion, presenting fair and reasonable accommodations to Kennedy. But he rejected all of them, turning football games into a media spectacle. And when he didn’t get his way, he pretended to be a victim, sued, and has now won at the Supreme Court.
“School staff, including teachers, will now feel they can force their personal religious beliefs—no matter how extreme—on students. In a country with people from so many different religions, and where more than a quarter of Americans espouse no religion, this is a recipe for disaster,” added Blackwell.
“This is another example of the Supreme Court playing favorites,” said Alison Gill, Vice President for Legal & Policy. “Christian plaintiffs like Kennedy, with claims that should be dismissed, are instead permitted to bring their cases to the highest court in the land, in order to further certain Justices’ ideologically biased agenda.”
“With school staff apparently now allowed to proselytize, students will lose their religious freedom whenever they enter school,” said Fish. “Parents—especially nonreligious and religious minority parents—will have little say about the religious beliefs staff impose on students. So much for ‘parents’ rights’ and students’ religious freedom.”
“Once again, the Christian extremists on the Supreme Court are moving us into terrifyingly uncharted territory—and increasingly toward an America with less equality and fewer rights,” he added.