The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sided with a former high school football coach who argued that he had a First Amendment right to kneel and pray on the field after games.
In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled in favor of former Bremerton High School football team assistant coach Joe Kennedy in his dispute against the Bremerton School District in Washington.
In an opinion penned by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the court said that in the case, “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.”
“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,” the opinion read. “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.”
In a dissenting opinion written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor and joined by justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, the judges said that the court’s majority opinion “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.”
“Today’s decision is particularly misguided because it elevates the religious rights of a school official, who voluntarily accepted public employment and the limits that public employment entails, over those of his students, who are required to attend school and who this Court has long recognized are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection,” Sotomayor wrote. “In doing so, the Court sets us further down a perilous path in forcing States to entangle themselves with religion, with all of our rights hanging in the balance.”
Court records obtained by KIRO-TV showed that school officials shared their disapproval of Kennedy’s praying on the field in 2015 after an opposing team’s coach told Bremerton High School’s principal that Kennedy had asked his team to join Kennedy in prayer on the field.
Kennedy told KIRO earlier this year that he started to pray alone after games in 2008, but that some players joined him after they asked what he was doing.
“My guys said, ‘What are you doing out there, coach?’ And I said, ‘I was just giving thanks for what you guys just did,’” he told KIRO. “They said, ‘Hey can we join you?’ And I was like, ‘It’s a free country you can do whatever you want to do.’”
In a letter sent to Kennedy in September 2015, Bremerton School District Superintendent Aaron Leavell wrote, “Schools and their employees, while performing their job duties, must remain neutral – allowing non-disruptive student religious activity, while neither endorsing nor discouraging it,” KIRO reported.
“I am sincerely committed to honoring your rights and continuing your outstanding contributions to the BHS football program, while also ensuring that the District is not exposed to liability because we have inadvertently violated the rights of students or other community members,” Leavell added, according to the news station.
In court records obtained by KIRO, one parent said that a player felt “compelled to participate” in Kennedy’s postgame prayers because “he felt like he wouldn’t get to play as much if he didn’t.” Kennedy told KIRO that he didn’t have any role in deciding playing time for students on the varsity football team.
In November 2015, school district officials recommended that Kennedy not be rehired, saying, among other things, that he failed to follow district policy and contributed to negative relations between parents, students, community members, coaches and the district, KIRO reported.
Kennedy did not reapply to his job. He told KIRO that he and other coaches were rolled over every year and that he knew “what a death sentence is when it says ‘do not rehire.’”
In 2016, Kennedy filed suit against the Bremerton School District claiming officials violated his constitutional right to free speech. A judge sided with the school district, writing in an opinion that public schools “do not have unfettered discretion to restrict an employee’s religious speech” but “do have the ability to prevent a coach from praying at the center of the football field immediately after games,” according to KIRO. An appeals court upheld the decision and Kennedy appealed to the Supreme Court.
The nation’s highest court heard arguments in April after declining to hear the case in 2019.
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