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First Amendment Victory: Supreme Court Sides With Praying Football Coach

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Continuing its string of decisions on hot-button issues, the Supreme Court has handed down a win for the First Amendment.

The court ruled 6-3 in favor of former football coach Joseph Kennedy in the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.

Kennedy, a former football coach for a high school in Washington state, had been placed on paid leave amid controversy over his decision to kneel in prayer at the football field’s 50-yard-line after games.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the opinion, stated, “[Kennedy] offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied. Still, the Bremerton School District disciplined him anyway. It did so because it thought anything less could lead a reasonable observer to conclude (mistakenly) that it endorsed Mr. Kennedy’s religious beliefs. That reasoning was misguided. Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s.”

“The [Free Exercise] Clause protects not only the right to harbor religious beliefs inwardly and secretly. It does perhaps its most important work by protecting the ability of those who hold religious beliefs of all kinds to live out their faiths in daily life through ‘the performance of (or abstention from) physical acts,'” he added.

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Gorsuch pointed out that Kennedy started praying on the field by himself and that over time, students asked if they could join, to which he responded, “This is a free country. You can do what you want.” Additionally, the number of students who joined him in prayer included almost the entire team.

Finally, the opinion says, “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. 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.

“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,” it adds.

Kennedy was the junior varsity head coach and varsity assistant coach for the Bremerton School District between 2008 and 2015. And for seven years he prayed on the field without drawing complaints.

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However, after the school district told him to stop praying on the field, he refused to comply and was placed on administrative leave.

As The Hill notes, “The school painted Kennedy as having led a prominent public demonstration of his religious beliefs on school grounds. His influential capacity as a coach, they argued, put pressure on the football team — including nonreligious players — to join in prayer or risk their playing time being cut.”

Lower courts previously also argued that Kennedy’s decision to pray in a prominent location meant he was acting as a public employee and that his actions were not protected by the First Amendment.

There’s a difference between giving students the opportunity to join them in prayer and declaring, “Everyone listen up! We’re going pray to now as a team.”

And importantly, there was not an allegation made that Kennedy actually took action to punish students who did not pray with him. According to court records, one parent complained that his son “felt compelled” to pray because he “felt” his playing time would be reduced otherwise. However, the document does not list any explicit reason why the student felt that was the situation.

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It can be awkward to feel like the odd man out if you see a group praying and you’re not in it or to hear prayers from someone of faith or a different faith than you.

But just because someone is a public employee and they offer the opportunity to pray, that doesn’t mean they’re compelling anyone to pray or that their employer is endorsing such conduct. And it shouldn’t lead to them being punished for trying to exercise their First Amendment rights.

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