The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that a school district cannot prohibit a football coach’s prayer on the field.
The country’s highest court previously heard the case in which a high school football coach was fired for praying silently on the field after the games. Most judges seemed to favor Coach Kennedy’s arguments during pleadings, and today they affirmed his rights to the First Amendment.
Coach Joe Kennedy, an 18-year Naval veteran, lost his job because he prayed at the 50-yard line after the games, and the Supreme Court ruled that the school district violated Coach Joe Kennedy’s rights.
“Here, a government agency attempted to punish a person for holding a short, silent, personal religious celebration that was doubly protected by the First Amendment’s free exercise and expression clauses. And the only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisals rested on a misconception that it had a duty to detect and suppress,” Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote in the court’s opinion. “Religious celebrations even if it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”
“Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s,” Gorsuch wrote. “An understanding of the amendment’s establishment clause also does not require the government to single out private religious expressions for special displeasure. The Constitution and the best of our traditions advise mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and oppression, for both religious and non-religious views.”
Chief Justice John Roberts, Judge Clarence Thomas, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Judge Samuel Alito, and Judge Amy Comey Barrett fully aligned themselves with the majority opinion.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor disagreed, along with Judge Stephen Breyer and Elana Kagan.
In her dissent, Sotomayor introduced the matter as “whether a public school should allow a school official to kneel, bow his head and say a prayer in the middle of a school event”, writing: “The constitution does not state allow, much less allow public schools to embrace this behavior.”
The case focused on two questions: (1) Whether a public school employee who offers a short, silent prayer only at school and is visible to students is involved in a government speech that lacks any protection of the first amendment has; and (2) whether, assuming such religious expression is private and protected by the freedom of expression and exercise clauses, the establishment clause nevertheless compels public schools to prohibit it.
In his argument, Kennedy asked the judges whether his “short, silent prayer” on the 50-yard line is protected by the First Amendment and, if so, whether public schools can nevertheless prohibit it to prevent it from being used. The EThe Constitution protects prayer, and public school teachers and students “do not reject their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the school gates.” establishment is a violated clause.
Bremerton School District refuted the argument that when Kennedy prayed on the 50-yard line after games, everyone saw him as a coach and a “mentor and role model.” Since Kennedy was acting as a government official at the time, the district argues that his speech was a government speech not protected by the First Amendment.
During pleadings, the Bremerton High School attorney struggled to respond to Judge Gorsuch’s question whether a coach making the sign of the cross was a government speech that could limit the district. Judge Thomas and others urged the community to censor someone kneeling for non-religious reasons.
In 2008, Bremerton High School football coach Kennedy promised God that he would pray and give thanks after every game he coached, regardless of the outcome. Coach Kennedy would drop to one knee and pray for 15-30 seconds on the 50-yard line at the end of games to say “a silent or silent prayer of thanks for player safety, sportsmanship, and spirited competition.” At first, Kennedy prayed silently and alone. After a few games, some students noticed and joined him. As the students gathered, Kennedy began giving short motivational speeches to players, ending with a short prayer. Sometimes no players would pick, and he would pray alone. He did this for seven years without complaints from school officials. Then in 2015, the Kennedy school district ordered the shutdown, as his practice violated the U.S. Constitution’s settlement clause. When he refused, the council fired him.
“It was my covenant between God and me that after every game, whether you win or lose, I will do it right there on the battlefield,” Kennedy told ABC News of his ritual, which he said usually takes less than an hour. Minute. Lasted.
“This is a right for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are this religion or that religion or have no faith at all,” he said. “Everyone has the same rights in America.”
A federal court in Washington and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the school district. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case, but four judges — Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh — indicated the Court would be open to hearing the case in the future. They wrote, “The Ninth Circuit’s understanding of free speech for public school teachers is troubling and may warrant a revision in the future.”
Kennedy returned to the Supreme Court in September 2021, telling the judges that the Ninth Circuit ruling used “imagined concerns about the incorporation clause to cause real harm to the Free Exercise Clause.” The Supreme Court finally heard the case on January 14, 2022.
The Bremerton School District defense wants to avoid the perception that it endorses Coach Kennedy’s religious speech. However, Liberty Counsel’s amicus brief illustrates that it is illogical to believe that the school district sanctioned religion by allowing Coach Kennedy to pray silently on the field after the game. He did not lead a group in prayer during the game; he didn’t say a blessing over the intercom and did not force team members to pray with him. Instead, as a private individual who happened to be the coach, he went to the fifty-foot line to pray quietly. Since school officials would have allowed him to keep other expressions on the field, censoring his religious words discriminates against points of view and shows hostility to religion.