Supreme Court ruling supports coach who prays on field after… | TCTA
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Gavel, law books and scales of justice

Supreme Court ruling supports coach who prays on field after games

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A high school football coach sued his school district regarding his right to pray at games. The coach had been praying quietly at the 50-yard line after football games for approximately 30 seconds, taking a knee while doing so. Students asked if they could join, and he responded by saying, “This is a free country. You can do what you want.” He eventually began making short motivational speeches along with the prayer when others were present.

Separately, the team at times engaged in pregame or postgame prayers in the locker room, which was a tradition that predated the coach's arrival at the school. He never told any student that it was important that they participate in any religious activity or pressured or encouraged ay student to join the postgame prayers.

The superintendent learned of these activities when an employee from another district commented positively on the school’s practices to the principal. The superintendent sent the coach a directive to avoid any motivational “talks with students” that “include religious expression, including prayer” and to avoid “suggesting, encouraging (or discouraging), or supervising any prayers of students. The directive from the superintendent did not stop here. He went on to direct that any religious activity on the coach's part must be “nondemonstrative (i.e., not outwardly discernible as religious activity) if “students are also engaged in religious conduct” in order to “avoid the perception of endorsement.”

The coach complied with the directive about motivational speeches with religious content and ended the locker room prayers. However, he continued the 50-yard line prayer in violation of the superintendent’s directive, resulting in his suspension, a poor performance evaluation, and a failure to be rehired for the subsequent school year. He then sued the district in federal court asserting a violation of the free exercise and free speech clauses of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion.

The district argued that allowing the coach to pray on the field would violate the Constitution’s establishment clause, which bars the government from both establishing an official religion and preferring one religion over another. It also argued that students might feel obligated to join the coach's prayers.

The United States Supreme Court rejected the district’s arguments and held that the coach's right to freely exercise his religion took precedent over the establishment clause under the facts of this case.

In doing so, the court noted that the coach was not on duty to strictly supervise students after the games. School employees were otherwise free to speak with a friend, make restaurant reservations, check emails, or attend to other personal matters at the time that the prayer occurred. Therefore, the coach was not acting as a spokesperson for the district at the time that he engaged in prayer.