The Supreme Court ruled in favor of a former high school football coach who lost his job after saying post-game prayers both on his own and with players. The court determined the prayer was protected free speech.
In the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the justices ruled 6-3. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion stating, “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.”
Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer dissented.
The court was asked to determine if former coach Joseph Kennedy, as a district employee, can say a prayer by himself while visible to students or whether that is government speech that lacks first amendment protection. The court also had to answer whether the school should ban that type of prayer under the establishment clause even if it is protected.
Kennedy lost his job at the end of the 2015 season for violating a district policy that stated, “[s]chool staff shall neither encourage nor discourage a student from engaging in non-disruptive oral or silent prayer or any other form of devotional activity”. The district, which is located west of Seattle, Washington, knew Kennedy prayed after games and told him he could continue, but students would not be allowed to join.
Kennedy eventually responded with a letter to the school district that stated he would continue praying and the students had a right to join. He was ultimately put on paid administrative leave and not rehired for the next season.
Dozens of amicus briefs were filed in the case but one of note came from NFL quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Nick Foles in favor of Kennedy. The NFL stars said they pray around game time and support the rights of players and coaches to do so. They argued Kennedy’s prayers were private speech and therefore could not violate the establishment clause.
The ACLU filed a brief stating Kennedy’s actions were taken as part of his official duties and were therefore unprotected.
Lower courts sided with the district, which argued Kennedy’s prayers could make some students feel forced to participate, which interferes with their own religious freedoms.
“If Kennedy wins, it would license so many teachers and coaches across the country to pressure students to join them in their prayer and violate their religious freedom,” Rachel Lester with Americans United for Separation of Church and State said. “It would practically sanction it.”