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The American Humanist Association (AHA) decries the 6-3 decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States today, in favor of Coach Joseph Kennedy, a high school football coach who had a regular practice of conducting post-game prayers surrounded by public school students at the 50-yard line. Bremerton School District viewed this practice as exercising undue influence over the student players to participate in Christian prayer, in a practice sometimes known as “pray to play”, thereby undermining the students’ religious freedom.
The Court has ruled that the Bremerton School District wrongfully fired Kennedy because both the free exercise and free speech clauses protect his right to pray following high school football games. The Court also abandoned the Lemon Test, long used to determine whether a government action violates First Amendment protections regarding religion.
In her dissenting opinion on the case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor states, “The Court now charts a different path, yet again paying almost exclusive attention to the Free Exercise Clause’s protection for individual religious exercise while giving short shrift to the Establishment Clause’s prohibition on state establishment of religion.” She continues, “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.”
“This ruling is a devastating blow to the cornerstone of our democracy: the wall separating church and state,” says AHA Legal Director and Senior Counsel, Monica Miller. “To abandon the Lemon test is to abandon separation of church and state as we’ve known it for decades.”
This ruling significantly impairs the First Amendment rights of every student in this country, who will now have to wonder whether they must espouse the same religious beliefs as their teachers and coaches, or risk lower grades and less playing time.
“There is no place for religion in our public schools. Students should never feel pressured or obligated to take part in religious activities, like prayer, in order to feel they belong to a team or any school community,” comments AHA Executive Director, Nadya Dutchin.
The American Humanist Association (AHA) works to protect the rights of humanists, atheists, and other nontheistic Americans. The AHA advances the ethical and life-affirming worldview of humanism, which—without beliefs in gods or other supernatural forces—encourages individuals to live informed and meaningful lives that aspire to the greater good of humanity.