The religious freedom of an American football coach fired from his school for having prayed in public was in question on Monday before the Supreme Court of the United States, the judges appearing divided on the scope of this right in schools.
Joseph Kennedy spent seven years at the head of the high school teams in Bremerton, near Seattle (northwest). After each match, he had taken to kneeling for a prayer in the middle of the field, sometimes joined by his players.
In 2015, school authorities did not renew his contract, saying he had violated the rule prohibiting a teacher from encouraging the practice of religion in public schools, in the name of separation from the Church. and the state.
He is also said to have pressured his players to join him, at the risk of no longer being selected in 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 exercise of religion in school is very sensitive in the United States and certain experts are concerned that the court, where the conservatives have a large majority (6-3), is attacking with this case the prohibition of prayer at school in force since 1962.
Joseph Kennedy engaged in “a private religious activity protected by the (right to) free exercise” of his religion, assured his lawyer, Paul Clement, denying any “coercion” on the players.
For Bremerton school authority lawyer Richard Katskee, Joseph Kennedy violated his obligations as a teacher by publicly claiming that his prayers were his way of helping “students be better”.
Mr Katskee pointed to the “awesome authority and powers” of a coach “who composes the first team, gives playing time and recommends students for college scholarships”.
The lawyer recalled that the school had allowed its coach to offer a personal prayer – but not “with or at the address of the students” – and offered alternative places to pray, which he had ultimately rejected.
The conservative justices appeared to doubt that such prayers violate the Constitution, suggesting the coach was reverted to a private person at the end of the encounters.
There is a difference, Brett Kavanaugh insisted, between a coach who prays “when the players leave the field” and one who orders his players to “form a circle” to pray.
But, underlined the progressive judge Sonia Sotomayor, “I have dozens of statements from the coach admitting that his obligations went beyond the match”, such as that of staying at the stadium two hours after the end of the match.
The court, which is expected to render its decision this summer, has already shown itself to be in favor of religious freedoms. Last year, she agreed with a Catholic organization that refused to place children in homosexual foster families in the name of its religious beliefs.