Trumpists Call on Supreme Court to Let States ‘Establish Religion Within Their Borders’

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Tom Alexander - Credit: Patrick Semansky/AP
Tom Alexander - Credit: Patrick Semansky/AP

America First Legal (AFL), a right-wing group whose team includes several former Trump administration officials, is urging the Supreme Court to do even more to shatter what’s left of the wall between church and state.

On Tuesday, June 28, the group issued a statement essentially calling for a total overhaul of the First Amendment’s establishment clause, a key provision separating church and state. The statement arrived one day after the Supreme Court cracked part of the clause’s foundation with its ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton. In that case, the court’s far-right majority ruled that public school officials in Bremerton, Washington, violated the First Amendment rights of high school football coach Joseph Kennedy when they fired him following a controversy stemming from his ritual of praying at the 50-yard line during football games. The 6-3 decision effectively overruled a 1971 precedent for interpreting the First Amendment’s establishment clause. 

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While the establishment clause exists to keep the government from establishing an official religion in the United States, or doing anything that might favor one religion over another, the AFL is now hopeful that the Supreme Court will “eventually disincorporate” the establishment clause in a future case. Doing so, the AFL suggests, would allow states to “decide whether and to what extent they will establish religion within their borders.” 

The AFL’s vice president and general counsel Gene Hamilton — a former Trump official in the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, whose hits include axing DACA and helping create the infamous family separation policy — argued in a statement that the original intent of the establishment clause was to let the states decide just how much they want to separate church and state.

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court decided in Coach Kennedy’s favor,” Hamilton said. “Perhaps the Court will, in a future case, finally restore the original meaning of the Establishment Clause and disincorporate it as to the states. But for today, we celebrate with Coach Kennedy and all Americans who value religious freedom.” 

Allowing individual states to establish their own official religions is just one possible tidal wave-sized ripple that could follow Kennedy v. Bremerton. Considering the current Court’s apparent disdain for established precedent, it could also pave the way for overturning the landmark 1962 case that ruled prayer in public schools was unconstitutional.

Kennedy v. Bremerton is also just one of two major SCOTUS rulings this term to take a crack at the long-established boundaries between church and state. Earlier in June, the right-wing majority ruled in Carson v. Makin that taxpayer money from a tuition assistance program in Maine could be used to send kids to private religious schools.

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