US top court allows prayers at school premises

Published June 28, 2022
The US Supreme Court is seen through bicycle fencing in Washington, DC, US, June 23. — AFP
The US Supreme Court is seen through bicycle fencing in Washington, DC, US, June 23. — AFP

WASHINGTON: Conservative judges of the US Supreme Court acted again on Monday, this time reinterpreting a constitutional amendment that prevents government officials from publicly displaying their faith at the workplace.

At issue was whether a public-school employee praying alone but in view of students was a violation of the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which forbids a government and its employees from publicly displaying their religious preferences.

The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” The clause also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another. A government employee praying at a government property is also considered a violation of this clause.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the majority opinion in the case known as Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, disagreed with this interpretation. “The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike,” Justice Gorsuch wrote.

A former Washington high school football coach Joseph Kennedy filed the case after he lost his job over reciting a prayer on the 50-yard line after games. The state of Washington’s Bremerton School District, where the teacher worked, interpreted his action as a violation of the First Amendment and sacked him.

The 6-3 judgment ruled that the free exercise and free speech clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in religious expression.

The US media noted that the court was divided on “ideological lines” on this issue. While the majority — six judges — favoured the teacher, three opined that he violated the constitution by praying publicly in the school premises.

Expressing the opinion of the liberal minority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the Constitution did not authorise public schools to embrace Kennedy’s conduct, adding that the majority’s opinion rejects “longstanding concerns” surrounding government endorsement of religion.

Justice Gorsuch observed that the school district sought to punish the teacher “for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance,” protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. “And the only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisal rested on a mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress religious observances,” he added.

The three liberal judges — Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan — wrote that “official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents.”

They said that the majority opinion “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.”

Justice Gorsuch, however, disagreed with the liberal interpretation, saying that the US “Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”

Rachel Laser, the president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told CBS News the ruling “represents the greatest loss of religious freedom” in generations.

Published in Dawn, June 28th, 2022

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