Posts distort Supreme Court ruling on coach’s prayer
CLAIM: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that teachers, staff and coaches can now lead students in prayer in public schools.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: Missing context. The nation’s highest court said that a public high school football coach was protected by the Constitution when he knelt and prayed on the field after games. However, the ruling specified that it was “private speech” and the justices in the majority emphasized the fact that the coach prayed after the games were over when he was not responsible for students. Constitutional lawyers say the ruling does not give school employees unfettered freedom to lead students in prayer at school.
THE FACTS: As the public reacts to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Monday in support of a coach who knelt to pray on the field after games, several misleading claims about the scope of the decision have circulated widely on social media.
“SCOTUS just ruled 6 to 3, that teachers, staff and coaches can now lead students in prayer in public schools,” one Facebook post read. “Another win!”
“Supreme Court passed prayer allowed back in schools today,” read another post. “Whoop whoop.”
But constitutional law experts say these comments distort the ruling, which said school employees could pray in a private capacity but did not endorse teachers leading students in prayer during instructional time.
The case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, centered on Joseph Kennedy, a former football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington. He started coaching at the school in 2008 and initially prayed alone on the 50-yard line at the end of games. Students started joining him, and over time he began to deliver a short, inspirational talk with religious references. Kennedy did that for years and also led students in locker room prayers, the Associated Press previously reported. The school district learned what he was doing in 2015 and asked him to stop out of concerns the district could be sued for violating students’ religious freedom rights.
He stopped leading students in prayer in the locker room and on the field but wanted to continue kneeling and praying on the field himself after games. The school asked him not to do so while still “on duty” as a coach after the games. When he continued, the school put him on paid leave. The head coach of the varsity team later recommended he not be rehired because, among other things, he failed to follow district policy.
After this, Kennedy sued in federal court, alleging the district’s actions violated his free speech and free exercise rights under the First Amendment. Lower courts sided with the district,
but the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 for the coach, with the conservative justices in the majority arguing that his prayers were speech that was protected by the Constitution.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the majority opinion, said that the coach “prayed during a period when school employees were free to speak with a friend, call for a reservation at a restaurant, check email, or attend to other personal matters” and “while his students were otherwise occupied.”
Constitutional lawyers said while many disagree the coach’s actions were private speech, the majority opinion makes it clear that the scope of the decision is limited.
“It says only that teachers can pray in their private capacity, quietly and in isolation,” said Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor who specializes in the law of religious liberty.
Laycock said there is ambiguity about whether the case means teachers can now pray in the presence of students or coerce them to join in while claiming the speech is private, but he said he doesn’t think the court “has gone that far yet.”
“When the biology teacher leads his students in prayer in the classroom, it is much more difficult to pretend that that is still isolated and in his private capacity,” Laycock said. “But we will see schools and teachers pushing the envelope, and courts will have to decide these cases.”
Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who focuses on constitutional law, agreed, saying the online claims are “a stretch, because the majority explicitly says this was his private speech.”
“There’s a legitimate question about whether or not a high school football coach in uniform at a game is truly engaging in private speech,” Levinson said. “But once you pass that threshold, it is not correct to say that this means a public school teacher can come into class and say, ‘we’re doing geology today, but first, let us bow our heads and pray.’”
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.