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File photo by Patrick Semansky of The Associated Press / An American flag blows in the wind in front of the Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 2, 2020.

The constitutional principle of separation of church and state isn't really that complicated: Americans are free to express their religious beliefs. But an instrument of government — like, say, a public employee on a high school football field — cannot be commandeered to promote that expression. And public school kids certainly cannot be pressured, even implicitly, to engage in prayer at a school event.

And yet, the case of a public high school coach who refused to stop leading players in prayer on the field immediately after games is now before the Supreme Court. Given the court's rightward lean today, many believe justices might weaken the wall between government and religion. That would be a dangerous slippery slope for believers and non-believers alike.

The story of Joseph Kennedy, a former high school assistant football coach in Bremerton, Washington, represents the latest bid to breach that wall. Kennedy, a Christian, began going out on the field at the end of each game, dropping to one knee at the 50-yard line and saying a short prayer alone.

That may sound innocuous, but this was a school district employee, on government property at a government-sponsored event, who had authority over the student players at that moment. Kennedy eventually "invited" (his word) his players to join in his ritual, and they did — which is unsurprising, given the nature of the coach-player relationship. Rare is the young athlete who doesn't want to please his or her coaches.

According to the school district, at least one parent complained that his son, an atheist, "felt compelled to participate" for fear he "wouldn't get to play as much" if he didn't. That's not an irrational fear. The district told Kennedy to stop. He sued, arguing the district had violated his constitutional rights of speech and religion. Lower courts upheld the district's position.

The case, which the Supreme Court heard last Monday, includes an amicus brief from dozens of congressional Republicans warning that schools would be expected to "root out any religious expression by its employees" if the district prevails. As if Kennedy was praying privately on the sidelines, instead of putting his religious display front and center, on school property, at a school event, and implicitly encouraging his players to join him.

Would those Republicans hold the same view if it had been, say, a Muslim coach kneeling on a prayer rug mid-field? How about a Wiccan coach doing a Pagan dance?

Contrary to what religious conservatives often seem to believe, the separation of church and state isn't an attack on religious freedom but a defense of it. A person's religious belief (or the lack of it) is a personal matter in which government should have no role. The language of the First Amendment is clear on that. The nation will soon find out whether the self-proclaimed originalists who now control the Supreme Court can say the same.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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