The landmark U.S. Supreme Court 6-3 ruling today siding with a high school football coach who led prayers during school events in Washington state will evoke heated debate among legal scholars and pundits.
But there’s no handier critique than the blistering dissent authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. She excoriated the court majority for ignoring “overwhelming precedents establishing that school officials leading prayer violates the Establishment Clause.”
Here are some of the most quotable points in Sotomayor’s dissent:
“This case is about whether a public school must permit a school official to kneel, bow his head, and say a prayer at the center of a school event. The Constitution does not authorize, let alone require, public schools to embrace this conduct."
“This Court consistently has recognized that school officials leading prayer is constitutionally impermissible.”
“While the Court reaffirms that the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from coercing participation in religious exercise, it applies a nearly toothless version of the coercion analysis, failing to acknowledge the unique pressures faced by students when participating in school-sponsored activities.
“This decision does a disservice to schools and the young citizens they serve, as well as to our Nation’s longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state.
“Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents, as embodied in both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”
“This case is not about the limits on an individual’s ability to engage in private prayer at work. This case is about whether a school district is required to allow one of its employees to incorporate a public, communicative display of the employee’s personal religious beliefs into a school event, where that display is recognizable as part of a longstanding practice of the employee ministering religion to students as the public watched.”
“Government neutrality toward religion is particularly important in the public-school context given the role public schools play in our society.”
“The Court concludes that coercion was not present in any event because “Kennedy did not seek to direct any prayers to students or require anyone else to participate. But nowhere does the Court engage with the unique coercive power of a coach’s actions on his adolescent players.”
“This decision rests on an erroneous understanding of the Religion Clauses. It also disregards the balance this Court’s cases strike among the rights conferred by the Clauses.”
“The Court relies on an assortment of pluralities, concurrences, and dissents by Members of the current majority to effect fundamental changes in this Court’s Religion Clauses jurisprudence, all the while proclaiming that nothing has changed at all.”
“For decades, the Court has recognized that, in determining whether a school has violated the Establishment Clause, ‘one of the relevant questions is whether an objective observer, acquainted with the text, legislative history, and implementation of the [practice], would perceive it as a state endorsement of prayer in public schools.’ The Court now says for the first time that endorsement simply does not matter.”
“The question before the Court is not whether a coach taking a knee to pray on the field would constitute an Establishment Clause violation in any and all circumstances. It is whether permitting Kennedy to continue a demonstrative prayer practice at the center of the football field after years of inappropriately leading students in prayer in the same spot, at that same time, and in the same manner, which led students to feel compelled to join him, violates the Establishment Clause. It does.”
“The effects of the majority’s new rule could be profound. The problems with elevating history and tradition over purpose and precedent are well documented.”
“The Court’s history-and- tradition test offers essentially no guidance for school administrators. If even judges and Justices, with full adversarial briefing and argument tailored to precise legal is- sues, regularly disagree (and err) in their amateur efforts at history, how are school administrators, faculty, and staff supposed to adapt?
“How will school administrators exercise their responsibilities to manage school curriculum and events when the Court appears to elevate individuals’ rights to religious exercise above all else?
“Today’s opinion provides little in the way of answers; the Court simply sets the stage for future legal changes that will inevitably follow the Court’s choice today to upset longstanding rules.”
“Today, the Court once again weakens the backstop. 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 be- tween church and state, eroding the protections for religious liberty for all.”
“In focusing almost exclusively on Kennedy’s free exercise claim, however, and declining to recognize the conflicting rights at issue, the Court substitutes one supposed blanket rule for another.”
“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.”
“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, to- day’s decision is no victory for religious liberty.”
You can read the full decision of the Court decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District here.
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