Religious Liberty Wins

High school football coach can pray at midfield

Religious Liberty Wins

High school football coach can pray at midfield

The United States Supreme Court ruled June 27 that a Washington school district violated former Bremerton High School football coach Joe Kennedy’s First Amendment rights by firing him for kneeling at the 50-yard line to pray silently after football games.

In a 6-3 decision, Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the court’s majority opinion, was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh. 

“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,” Gorsuch stated. “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.” 

From 2008 to 2015, Kennedy, who had served previously in the Marine Corps, was the junior varsity head football coach and assistant varsity coach at Bremerton High School. 

For nearly seven years, Kennedy’s postgame prayers went unopposed by school officials until the school district decided that as a government employee, Kennedy could not pray in public while working.

Kennedy filed suit against Bremerton School District in 2016.

Franklin Graham thanked Kennedy in a Facebook post for the sacrifices he made to defend religious liberty. “This isn’t a time for Christians to roll over—it is a time to defend our religious freedoms so that they are not lost for our children and grandchildren. Thank you Coach Kennedy for going through this difficult battle that took many years and a toll on your life and family!”

In his 32-page opinion, Gorsuch likened Kennedy’s personal prayer time on the football field following games to the same rights enjoyed by fellow school employees who might pray silently during their lunch break or participate in other postgame activities. 

Kelly Shackelford, president, CEO and chief counsel for First Liberty, a religious liberty law firm based in Plano, Texas, which represented Kennedy, praised the court’s decision as a “tremendous victory for Coach Kennedy and religious liberty for all Americans.” 

In her 35-page dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, argued that “this Court consistently has recognized that school officials leading prayer is constitutionally impermissible.”

Photo: ©2022 John Kringas

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