Supreme Court Upholds High School Coach’s Right To Pray on Football Field

Supreme Court Upholds High School Coach’s Right To Pray on Football Field

The United States Supreme Court ruled Monday 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. 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.”

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.

“I thank God for answering our prayers and sustaining my family through this long battle,” Kennedy said.

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. “Kennedy prayed during a period when school employees were free to speak with a friend, call for a reservation at a restaurant, check email, or attend to other personal matters. He offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied. Still, the Bremerton School District disciplined him anyway,” wrote Gorsuch. 

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.” 

“Our Constitution protects the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired,” he added. “We are grateful that the Supreme Court recognized what the Constitution and law have always said—Americans are free to live out their faith in public.”

Paul Clement, former U.S. solicitor general and First Liberty network attorney who argued Kennedy’s case before the justices, said, “After seven long years, Coach Kennedy can finally return to the place he belongs—coaching football and quietly praying by himself after the game. This is a great victory for Coach Kennedy and the First Amendment.”

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.”

“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 wrote. 

“This decision does a disservice to schools and the young citizens they serve, as well as to our Nation’s longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state.”

For nearly seven years, Kennedy’s postgame prayers went unopposed by school officials. But after a coach from an opposing team made a comment to Bremerton’s principal in September 2015 that he “thought it was pretty cool how [the District] would allow Kennedy’s religious activity,” the school district decided that as a government employee, Kennedy could not pray in public while on duty.

District officials first demanded that he cease all religious-related activities with students. Over the years, students had on occasion chosen—of their own volition—to join him on the 50-yard line to pray after games. Kennedy complied with the district’s directive, as the commitment he made to God was personal and was never intended to involve students.

But in subsequent letters to Kennedy, the district went further, ordering Kennedy to stop all “demonstrative religious activity” that is “readily observable to … students and the attending public.” When Kennedy continued to pray silently at midfield after games, the district placed him on administrative leave. 

Kennedy filed suit against Bremerton School District in 2016.

In 2018, the Supreme Court chose not to hear Kennedy’s case and instead sent it back down to the district court for further consideration. But four justices—Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh—issued a statement expressing serious concern about how the school district and the lower courts had understood the First Amendment rights of public school teachers. Four years later, the case made it back up to the Supreme Court, and in January, justices announced that they would hear it.

Photo: Courtesy of First Liberty

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