The U.S. Supreme Court on June 27 ruled 6-3 that a school district violated the First Amendment rights of a high school football coach by firing him for praying briefly at midfield after games.
In the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District opinion authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the high court determined that the Washington state school erred in firing high school football coach Joseph A. Kennedy.
“The Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual from engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal,” the court decided. “The Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression.”
The 6-3 decision split along the same lines as the much-anticipated June 24 decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas, Amy Coney Barrett, Samuel Alito, and Chief Justice John G. Roberts concurred with Gorsuch’s opinion (Thomas and Alito wrote brief concurring opinions). Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan dissented.
Kennedy, an 18-year ex-Marine, served as an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School. Before joining the staff, he made a commitment to God to kneel for a 30-second prayer at the 50-yard-line after the conclusion of games — win or lose — after players had left the field.
Initially, Kennedy, 52, prayed alone. Soon, some of his team’s players asked to join him. Then a few players from the opposition did as well. Eventually, the coach began offering short motivational talks.
The practice went unnoticed by school administration officials — for seven years. Upon learning of the prayers, the district quickly warned Kennedy that his actions could be construed as a government endorsement of religion. They suggested he confine his devotion to a janitor’s office away from the view of players and fans. When Kennedy balked, the school placed him on administrative leave. Kennedy filed suit. No evidence existed that Kennedy ever coerced anyone to join him, yet two lower courts ruled in the school district’s favor.
Former U.S. solicitor general Paul Drew Clement, 55, a volunteer attorney with First Liberty Institute, defended Kennedy. He argued the case before the Supreme Court on April 25.
Eleven former or current professional football players filed amicus briefs on behalf of Kennedy, including Steve Largent and Chad Hennings plus NFL hall of famer Darrell Green.
The Supreme Court noted that the district disciplined Kennedy only for his decision to persistently pray quietly after games without his students. The district erroneously believed it couldn’t allow an employee to engage in religious conduct when his actions in reality amounted to private speech, Gorsuch stated.
“He did not speak pursuant to government policy and was not seeking to convey a government-created message,” Gorsuch wrote. “He was not instructing players, discussing strategy, encouraging better on-field performance, or engaged in any other speech the District paid him to produce as a coach.”
Gorsuch said the Constitution doesn’t tolerate employers restricting what an employee says as a private citizen.
“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic,” Gorsuch declared. “Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance, based on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances.”
Citing the Supreme Court’s 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District outcome, Gorsuch said neither teachers nor students “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Assemblies of God legal counsel Kristen K. Waggoner agrees. She faulted the 9th Circuit Court’s ruling — which the Supreme Court reversed — that determined the coach’s personal, on-field prayers were not his own, but the government’s.