In an opinion released on June 27 and written by the Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Supreme Court used a case about a Washington high school football coach to effectively neuter a section of the First Amendment and open the door to legislative religious indoctrination by Republicans.
Kennedy v. Bremerton concerned coach Joseph Kennedy, who was fired after repeatedly leading demonstrative Christian prayer sessions with his public school players after games. The court, ignoring over half a century of legal precedent, concluded that Coach Kennedy was unfairly reprimanded for engaging in “quiet personal prayer” and should have been allowed to continue despite his position of power having coerced students into participating for fear of retribution.
The ruling overturned the “Lemon test,” which was used by SCOTUS to preserve the separation of church and state guaranteed by the First Amendment, aka the Establishment Clause. In a scathing dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the 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,” and even included photographic evidence of Kennedy’s public prayer groups to prove the disingenuousness of the majority’s opinion.
Republican Texas lawmakers immediately praised the radical decision, with Governor Greg Abbott tweeting that the court had held that “public school officials have a constitutional right to pray publicly, and lead students in prayer, during school events.” Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz followed suit in their elation at the decision.
The case is the sibling of the recent June 21 ruling in Carson v. Makin, which mandated that Maine’s public tax dollars be allocated to private religiously-based educational institutes. In conjunction, the two cases mark a huge blow to secular public education, which has been a long-time target of evangelical conservatives that they are now attacking with full force both through state legislation and local school board elections. Since the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the high court in late 2020, Texas Republicans have felt empowered to push for “school choice” and an increased role for religion, specifically Christianity, in the lives of Texan students.
Indeed, the court’s new 6-3 right-wing majority has been integral to their strategy on the issue, as they knew many of the legal guardrails previously put in place by the Establishment Clause would disappear once the decisions on these cases were made. Now with these two rulings, the Establishment Clause has been, as somberly detailed by The Nation legal analyst Elie Mystal, effectively read out of the Constitution altogether.