'All of our rights hanging in the balance': Sotomayor issues stark warning in dissent to school prayer ruling
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaking to attendees at the John P. Frank Memorial Lecture in 2017. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a stark warning in her dissent to a school prayer case.

The right-wing majority ruled 6-3 in favor of a Washington high school football coach who led student prayers on the field, which the majority opinion described as a private exercise of his religious liberty, but Sotomayor's dissent described the ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton as "no victory for religious liberty."

"Today, the Court once again weakens the backstop," Sotomayor wrote. "It elevates one individual’s interest in personal religious exercise, in the exact time and place of that individual’s choosing, over society’s interest in protecting the separation between church and state, eroding the protections for religious liberty for all."

"Today’s decision is particularly misguided because it elevates the religious rights of a school official, who voluntarily accepted public employment and the limits that public employment entails, over those of his students, who are required to attend school and who this Court has long recognized are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection," she added.

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"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. I respectfully dissent."

Joe Kennedy, a coach for Bremerton High School in Washington state, began a ritual in 2008 where he would pray on the field at the final whistle.

But the school told the Christian military veteran to bring an end to the custom in 2015 after players began joining in -- arguing that he was violating its ban on staff encouraging students to pray.

He was placed on administrative leave when he defied the order and did not reapply for his job after his contract ended soon after, opting instead to sue the school district.

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The Supreme Court is being asked to rule on whether the public official's prayers amounted to government speech, or private expression protected by the Constitution.

Education officials say they supported Kennedy's religious rights -- offering him private places for prayer -- but could not allow his post-game ritual, which could be perceived as the school endorsing religion.

Kennedy lost the case and a subsequent appeal in which a three-judge panel said he was "not engaging in private prayer, but was instead engaging in public speech of an overtly religious nature while performing his job duties."

But the Supreme Court's conservative justices backed Kennedy’s claims.

With additional reporting by AFP