The Supreme Court sided with a high-school coach who was fired for leading prayers after games.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that the coach conducted a "quiet, personal prayer."
But Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the coach-led prayers included players.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Monday hit back at the Supreme Court's conservative majority, saying its decision siding with a former football coach who prayed on the field after games "misconstrues the facts" of the major First Amendment case.
Joe Kennedy, a former football coach at a public high school, was suspended by his school district for praying at the 50-yard line immediately following games. Kennedy said the school district infringed on his First Amendment rights of free exercise of religion and free speech.
The Supreme Court in a 6-3 ruling on Monday ruled in Kennedy's favor, with all six of the court's conservatives in the majority and the three liberals in dissent. The decision continues a trend by the Supreme Court to bolster religious rights. For decades, the Supreme Court had largely struck down prayers organized by officials on public-school grounds.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, a conservative appointed by President Donald Trump, delivered the majority opinion for the case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, writing: "The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike."
Gorsuch repeatedly wrote in the court's opinion that Kennedy led a "quiet, personal prayer" after football games. But in a strongly worded dissent, Sotomayor, a liberal appointed by President Barack Obama, said Kennedy's prayers weren't as insignificant as her conservative colleagues claimed.
"To the degree the Court portrays petitioner Joseph Kennedy's prayers as private and quiet, it misconstrues the
facts," Sotomayor wrote. "The record reveals that Kennedy had a longstanding practice of conducting demonstrative prayers on the 50-yard line of the football field. Kennedy consistently invited others to join his prayers and for years led student athletes in prayer at the same time and location. The Court ignores this history."
Sotomayor also included a photo of one of Kennedy's post-game prayers in her dissent. It shows a number of students gathered around him on the school's football field.
She wrote that during this prayer on September 11, 2015, Kennedy "led a prayer out loud, holding up a player's helmet as the players kneeled around him."
Kennedy initially sued the Bremerton School District, alleging their requests for him to stop his prayers were infringing on his First Amendment rights.
The district said it didn't oppose Kennedy praying but asked that he pray alone and away from students, even offering him the option to return to the field after students and other bystanders left the area after the games.
The school district said Kennedy's conduct could be perceived as a government endorsement of religion, which the First Amendment's establishment clause prohibits.
After multiple lower courts dismissed his legal challenges, Kennedy turned to the Supreme Court, which took up his case and ultimately sided with him.
In her dissent, Sotomayor also ripped the court's decision as eroding the separation between church and state.
"The Court sets us further down a perilous path in forcing States to entangle themselves with religion, with all of our rights hanging in the balance," Sotomayor wrote. "As much as the Court protests otherwise, today's decision is no victory for religious liberty."
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