WASHINGTON (AP) — A coach who crosses himself before a game. A teacher who reads the Bible aloud before the bell rings. A coach who hosts an after-school Christian youth group in his home.
Supreme Court justices discussed all those hypothetical scenarios Monday while hearing arguments about a former public high school football coach from Washington state who wanted to kneel and pray on the field after games. The justices were wrestling with how to balance the religious and free speech rights of teachers and coaches with the rights of students not to feel pressured into participating in religious practices.
The court’s conservative majority seemed sympathetic to the coach while its three liberals seemed more skeptical. The outcome could strengthen the acceptability of some religious practices in the public school setting.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who played basketball in high school himself and has coached his daughters’ teams, suggested that there’s a difference between a coach praying in a huddle with students or in the locker room and “when players are disbursing after the game.” “This wasn’t, you know, ‘Huddle up, team,’” Kavauagh said at one point, suggesting the coach’s practice was acceptable.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked what if the coach had instead run an after-school religious youth group at his home, with students free to join or not. Would the school have been able to object to that, she asked.
Arguments at the high court lasted nearly two hours, despite being scheduled for just one. The justices and the lawyers arguing the case at various points discussed teachers and coaches who might wear ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, oppose racism by kneeling during the national anthem or express a political opinion by putting signs in their home’s yard. Former NFL player Tim Tebow, who was known for kneeling in prayer on the field, and Egyptian soccer star Mohamed Salah, a Muslim who kneels and touches his forehead to the ground after a goal, also came up.
Justice Samuel Alito, borrowing from the news, asked about protesting the Russian invasion of Ukraine and what if the coach had, instead of praying, gone out to the center of the field and “all he did was to wave a Ukranian flag.” Would he have been disciplined? Yes, a lawyer for the school district said, because the district “doesn’t want its event taken over for political speech.”
The Supreme Court previously declined to get involved in the case at an earlier stage in 2019. At that time Alito wrote for himself and three other conservatives — Kavanaugh and Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas — that a lower court decision in favor of the school district was “troubling” for its “understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers.” But they agreed with the decision not to take the case up at the time.
The case has returned to the court at a time when the court’s conservative majority has been sympathetic to the concerns of religious individuals and groups, such as groups that brought challenges to coronavirus restrictions that applied to houses of worship. But cases involving religion can also unite the court. Already this term in an 8-1 decision the justices ruled for a Texas death row inmate who sought to have his pastor pray aloud and touch him while his execution was carried out.