On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that a former Washington state public high school football coach’s First Amendment rights were violated when the school asked him to stop praying on the field after games.
Former coach Joseph Kennedy regularly took a knee after games to pray, which started as a personal move, but then players soon asked to join in. After some time, the school asked him to stop, and when he refused, administrators made sure he didn’t come back the following season. But, the Courts decided that the school was in the wrong in a 6-3 majority in the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District case.
Kennedy personally decided to pray after every game he coached, win or lose. Soon enough, players asked if they could join, which Kennedy agreed to. Even opposing players would often participate. Kennedy’s postgame prayers went on from 2008-2015.
However, in 2015, parents started complaining, and some players said they felt compelled to participate so that they’d gain favor in Kennedy’s eyes. The school then asked if Kennedy could pray in a more private setting, or if he could wait until the crowd dissipated before praying. When Kennedy refused, he didn’t return to the coaching position. The school maintained that since he was a government employee praying in a public setting, he wasn’t protected by the First Amendment.
“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,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in the majority opinion. “Religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”
“[The school’s] reasoning was misguided,” the Court’s majority opinion continued. “Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor.”
The dissenting opinion claims that the majority “misconstrues the facts” of the case.
“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,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in the opinion, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
The school responded to the ruling that they’ll continue to work with their attorneys to create a welcoming and inclusive space for all.
The Court explained that while Kennedy was a government employee, his prayer was not government speech. Therefore, his speech was not “pursuant to a government policy” and he was not “seeking to convey a government-created message.” Kennedy was also not working in the normal scope of his duties, allowing him to “attend briefly to personal matters.”
When talking about the ruling, Kennedy said he “can’t stop smiling.”
“It just feels good to know that the First Amendment is alive and well,” he said.
The Court’s ruling comes less than a week after another school religious liberty case, Carson v. Makin. In this case, Maine’s school choice program excluded religious schools, which the Court ruled to be unconstitutional.
“The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools—so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion,” wrote Chief Justice Roberts in the majority opinion.
What do you think about the Supreme Court’s ruling in these school religious liberty cases?