The religious freedom of an American soccer coach who was expelled from his school for performing prayers in public was called into question Monday in the United States Supreme Court, as judges appeared divided over the scope of this right in schools.
Joseph Kennedy spent seven years leading the high school teams in Bremerton, near Seattle (Northwest). After each game, he was on his knees to pray in the middle of the field, sometimes joined by his players.
In 2015, the school administration did not renew his contract, finding that he had broken the rule prohibiting a teacher from encouraging the practice of religion in public schools, in the name of separation from church and state.
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He is also said to have pressured his players to join him, risking not being selected for the team.
The coach went to court and then to the Supreme Court, claiming that his individual right to freedom of worship had been violated.
The question of the practice of religion in school is highly sensitive in the United States and some experts fear that the Court, where conservatives have a large (6-3) majority, is attacking with this issue the ban on prayer at school in force since 1962.
Joseph Kennedy participated in a “special religious activity that protects her [droit au] Freedom to practice his “religion”, his lawyer Paul Clement reassured, denying any “restrictions” on the players.
For Bremerton School Authority attorney Richard Katsky, Joseph Kennedy violated his obligations as a teacher by publicly claiming that his prayer was his way of helping “students be better.”
Mr Katskee noted the “enormous power and authority” of the coach “who composes the first team, gives playing time and recommends students for college scholarships”.
The lawyer noted that the school allowed its coach to perform a personal prayer – but not “with the pupils or at their address” – and offered alternative places for prayer, which he ultimately refused.
Conservative judges seemed to doubt that such prayers would violate the constitution, pointing to the coach’s return to a layman at the end of the confrontations.
Brett Kavanaugh insisted that there is a difference between a coach who prays “when the players leave the field” and one who orders his players to “form a circle” to pray.
But progressive judge Sonia Sotomayor stressed, “I have dozens of statements from the coach acknowledging that his obligations went beyond the match,” such as the obligation to remain on the field two hours after the match ended.
The court, which is expected to issue its ruling this summer, has shown it supports religious freedoms. Last year, she agreed with a Catholic organization that refused to place children in gay foster families in the name of her religious beliefs.
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