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Opinion | The Supreme Court is eroding the wall between church and state

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A conservative Supreme Court majority is redefining the constitutional order — dismissive of Americans' privacy rights, committed to dangerous pro-gun dogmas and, as the court showed twice this month, alarmingly permissive of mixing religion and government.

The latest example comes in the case of Joseph Kennedy, a high school football assistant coach in Washington state who led prayers on the 50-yard line after games. As they got increasingly ostentatious, the school district asked him to stop. He toned down his prayers, but refused to stop using his privileged access to the 50-yard line to engage in public religious displays in the middle of an official school event while wearing team attire.

The court's six conservatives sided with the coach, rather than the school district that tried to persuade him to perform his religious observances on his own time and without implying that the school endorsed them. In so doing, the justices practically encouraged school officials to engage in showy displays of religious practice on school grounds, arguing that doing so promotes "learning how to tolerate diverse expressive activities." The court reached its conclusion only by ignoring massive parts of the factual record. The majority claims Mr. Kennedy's prayers were "quiet" personal acts during a "brief lull" in his duties following football games. In fact, he was on the clock, supposed to be supervising students after games.

Until the final few games of the season, after the district had threatened to discipline him, Mr. Kennedy's prayers were not personal, as the coach invited students and even opposing teams to join him. They were not limited to the field or the post-game "lull"; he led prayers in the locker room. His acts were not quiet; he gave religious-themed speeches as players knelt around him. All the while, Mr. Kennedy was supposed to be supervising students in the locker room.

The justices deemed these facts irrelevant, saying the school punished Mr. Kennedy only for his conduct after the season's final three games, following which he made no lengthy public speeches and did not lead prayers in the locker room, just silently prayed on the 50-yard line as others joined him. The coach, of course, was able to stage his religious display on restricted public property only because he was a school employee working during an official activity core to his employment.

It is obvious the justices did not put themselves in the shoes of a Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or agnostic student watching from the literal and social sidelines, facing the decision of whether to join a coach on the field or stay true to their religious or nonreligious convictions. Along with another court decision earlier this month, in which the justices ordered the state of Maine to finance tuition at religious schools under a statewide voucher program, the majority appears determined to rule in favor of those seeking to use government resources to advance their religious beliefs — and against those who object to dismantling the wall between church and state.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus; Associate Editorial Page Editor Jo-Ann Armao (education, D.C. affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care).

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