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US Supreme Court finds for high-school coach in religious freedom case

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The US Supreme Court has ruled in favour of a former high school coach who was dismissed for praying at football games, wading into the fraught debate on the separation of church and state.

The 6-3 decision from the court’s conservative majority on Monday held that Joseph Kennedy, formerly employed by a public high school in Washington state, was protected by constitutional rights to free speech and religious practice.

“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse republic — whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion, which was joined by Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Chief Justice John Roberts.

The ruling signals the Supreme Court’s willingness to give religious worship more latitude in the public sphere, prioritising individuals’ prerogative to practice faith in a way critics argue undermines the division between church and state and puts an individual’s right to worship above protections for religious liberty more broadly.

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The majority opinion said that if the first amendment’s establishment clause — which bars the government from establishing a religion — was interpreted as requiring teachers who performed religious activities in public to be sacked, rather than merely allowing for the possibility, it would be a sign the courts had “had gone off the rails”.

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There was no evidence Kennedy had coerced anyone to take part in his prayers, Gorsuch wrote, adding: “In the name of protecting religious liberty, the [school] district would have us suppress it . . . [and] would have us preference secular activity.”

The decision illustrates how the Supreme Court’s conservative justices, emboldened by a 6-3 majority, have embraced some of the most polarising touchstones of the conservative legal movement in the US, from religious freedom to abortion and gun rights.

The latest opinion comes just days after the Supreme Court’s dramatic decision to overturn Roe vs Wade, the 1973 ruling that protected women’s constitutional right to seek an abortion for nearly 50 years. Last week, the court also struck down a century-old New York state law requiring an individual to show “proper cause” to carry a concealed gun in public, deeming the statute unconstitutional.

The decision handed down on Monday will reverse rulings made by lower courts that argued Kennedy’s behaviour posed a “risk of constitutional liability” under the establishment clause.

The dissenting opinion authored by Sonia Sotomayor and joined by Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, the two other liberal justices, said the court’s decision “elevates one individual’s interest in personal religious exercise . . . over society’s interest in protecting the separation between church and state, eroding the protections for religious liberty for all”.

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Sotomayor added: “In doing so, the court sets us further down a perilous path in forcing states to entangle themselves with religion, with all of our rights hanging in the balance. As much as the court protests otherwise, today’s decision is no victory for religious liberty.”

The dissenting justice wrote that the conservative majority “misconstrue[d] the facts” by characterising Kennedy’s prayers as “private and quiet”, given his “longstanding practice of conducting demonstrative prayers” on the football field, at times inviting players and coaches from other teams to join.

The dissenting opinion included photographs showing Kennedy surrounded by dozens of kneeling players while holding up a football helmet.

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