Last year, when the right-wing Supreme Court majority ruled that public schools not only could allow employees to engage in public prayer while on the job but that they must allow it (never mind the First Amendment’s prohibition on state-sponsored religion), Justice Sonia Sotomayor offered a scorching dissent detailing many of the false claims on which the majority decision rested. Now, another element of fraud in the case is clear: The coach who led disruptive public prayer on the 50-yard line of high school football games has definitively shown that he didn’t actually want his job back, Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern reports.
Joe Kennedy had moved from Washington state to Florida before his case got to the Supreme Court, leading the school district he was suing to let the court know that the lawsuit was moot—a Florida resident wasn’t seriously looking to win back a job coaching high school football in Washington. But Kennedy insisted, through his lawyers, that even though he had sold his house in Washington, “The relocation to Florida is not permanent, and Kennedy stands ready, willing, and able to move back to Bremerton as soon as humanly possible should he prevail in this litigation and be permitted to resume his coaching duties.”
That was an obvious lie, but this Supreme Court wasn’t going to let that get in the way of a case promoting its favored agenda. Can you guess what happened after the court ordered Kennedy reinstated?
Stern lays it out:
When a court ordered the school district to rehire him, the Seattle Times’ Danny Westneat reported, they initially did not get a response. While Bremerton students were preparing for a new season of football, Kennedy was meeting with former Vice President Mike Pence. On the night before their first game of the season, he was awarded an engraved rifle at an American Legion convention. Meetings with former President Donald Trump, and later, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, crowded his calendar. (Kennedy dined with DeSantis but remains loyal to Trump.)
Kennedy finally returned to coach single game last Friday—staying at a friend’s house, since he no longer had a residence in Washington—and then quit.
The court’s embrace of Kennedy’s lie about his interest in having his job back was matched by its embrace of his lies about just what he was doing when he prayed on the football field. Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch characterized it as “brief, quiet, personal religious observance.” In reality, as Sotomayor detailed:
While Kennedy’s letter asserted that his prayers “occurr[ed] ‘on his own time,’ after his duties as a District employee had ceased,” the District pointed out that Kennedy “remain[ed] on duty” when his prayers occurred “immediately following completion of the football game, when students are still on the football field, in uniform, under the stadium lights, with the audience still in attendance, and while Mr. Kennedy is still in his District-issued and District-logoed attire.”
The District further noted that “[d]uring the time following completion of the game, until players are released to their parents or otherwise allowed to leave the event, Mr. Kennedy, like all coaches, is clearly on duty and paid to continue supervision of students.”
In other words, this was anything but brief, quiet, or personal. It was a performance carried out while he was on duty working for a public school system, and while students remained under his authority. Of course a court that was willing to pretend his praying was brief, quiet, and personal was also willing to believe that Kennedy actually wanted his job back rather than raking in money on the right-wing speaking circuit and schmoozing with politicians.
And the Supreme Court has continued to embrace such lies in its quest to remove any guardrails on what Christians can do in the name of their religion. This year, the court ruled in favor of a website designer who claimed—falsely, as Melissa Gira Grant discovered—to have been asked to make a wedding website for a gay couple and wanted the court to say that she was allowed to discriminate, even though she had never faced any actual penalty for refusing to make such a website. Sure, the court’s right-wing justices said. There’s no need for you to have suffered a penalty for your actions: We’ll preemptively deploy a set of outlandish hypotheticals to conclude that you and other Christians have the right to discriminate.
Here is the thing: This Supreme Court majority doesn’t care. It doesn’t care about the facts of a case. It doesn’t care about legal precedent or the basic rules in which court decisions are supposed to be grounded. It cares about the far-right outcome. And that’s how it’s going to be for decades—unless Democrats get it together to reform the court.