U.S. Supreme Court Upholds First Amendment Rights of Praying Football Coach

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday in a 6-3 opinion the expressions of a high school football coach who prayed by himself at midfield after games are protected by both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment.

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District that coach Joseph Kennedy was fired “because he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet prayer of thanks.”

Gorsuch said it was clear Kennedy was engaged in private, and not government, speech while he was praying:

Still, the Bremerton School District disciplined him anyway. It did so because it thought anything less could lead a reasonable observer to conclude (mistakenly) that it endorsed Mr. Kennedy’s religious beliefs. That reasoning was misguided. Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s.

Gorsuch continued that “a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause” does not “require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor.”

“The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike,” the justice asserted.

Kennedy began his legal battle with the Bremerton School District in Washington State in 2015. His case reached the Supreme Court in 2019 but the Court declined to take it and sent it back to the lower courts.

At one point, as Gorsuch wrote in the case summary, when Kennedy bowed his head in prayer alone at midfield after a game, “players from the other team and members of the community joined him before he finished his prayer.”

The justice continued:

This event spurred media coverage of Mr. Kennedy’s dilemma and a public response from the District. The District placed robocalls to parents to inform them that public access to the field is forbidden; it posted signs and made announcements at games saying the same thing; and it had the Bremerton Police secure the field in future games.

According to the Court:

Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic—whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head. Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. And the only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisal rested on a mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination. Mr. Kennedy is entitled to summary judgment on his First Amendment claims. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is Reversed.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan dissented.

Sotomayor wrote for the dissenting justices the Court “consistently has recognized that school officials leading prayer is constitutionally impermissible.”

“Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents, as embodied in both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” she said. “The Court now charts a different path, yet again paying almost exclusive attention to the Free Exercise Clause’s protection for individual religious exercise while giving short shrift to the Establishment Clause’s prohibition on state establishment of religion.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represented the Bremerton School District, said in a statement the Court’s ruling is the “greatest loss of religious freedom in generations.”

Rachel Laser, CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the Court has “continued its assault on church-state separation, by falsely describing coercive prayer as ‘personal’ and stopping public schools from protecting their students’ religious freedom.”

“It is no coincidence that the erosion of the line between church and state has come alongside devastating losses on so many of the rights we cherish,” she said. “As that line has blurred, public education, reproductive rights, civil rights and more have come under attack.”

“This court focused only on the demands of far-right Christian extremists, robbing everyone else of their religious freedom,” Laser added. “As the network of religious extremists and their political allies behind this case celebrate victory, we can expect them to try to expand this dangerous precedent – further undermining everyone’s right to live as ourselves and believe as we choose.”

The Bremerton School District referred to the legal battle between the district and Kennedy as a “distraction.”

“The Bremerton School District’s priorities have always been protecting the rights and safety of students while ensuring that they receive an exemplary education,” the district said in a response to the Court’s ruling.

“That’s why, when we learned that a district employee was leading students in prayer, we followed the law and acted to protect the religious freedom of all students and their families,” the district defended its decisions in the case.

“In light of the court’s decision, we will work with our attorneys to make certain that the Bremerton School District remains a welcoming, inclusive environment for all students, their families and our staff,” the district stated.

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Susan Berry, PhD, is national education editor at The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected]
Photo “Joe Kennedy” by Support Coach Joe Kennedy. Background Photo “U.S. Supreme Court” by Morriswa. CC BY-SA 3.0.

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