In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the Supreme Court ruled that a public high school football coach in Washington was in violation of his First Amendment rights after being placed on administrative leave by the district and prohibited from participating in the football program for praying on the field after games in front of students.
SCOTUS Blog tweeted Monday morning that the Supreme Court sided with the high school football coach in a First Amendment case about prayer at the 50-yard line. SCOTUS ruled 6-3 that the public school district violated the coach’s free speech and free exercise rights when it prohibited him from praying on the field after games.” The case was resolved along ideological lines.
The majority opinion was written by Justice Neil Gorsuch.
“In this case, a government entity sought to penalize an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance double protected by the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Free Speech clauses. In Gorsuch’s opinion, the government’s only meaningful justification was a mistaken notion that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress.” “Religious observances, while allowing comparable secular speech.” The Constitution does not permit such discrimination.”
Marine veteran Joseph Kennedy was an assistant football coach for Bremerton High School (BHS) in 2008 when he began a tradition of kneeling and praying after games. Students soon joined him. The issue was addressed with the coach by a school administrator in 2015 after an opposing team complained. Following an investigation, Kennedy was placed on administrative leave and barred from participating in any football activities at BHS.
Gorsuch wrote on Monday that Kennedy’s private religious exercise did not cross any line separating protected free speech from impermissible government coercion.
“Learning to tolerate speech or prayer of all kinds is a vital part of living in a pluralistic society, a characteristic essential to becoming a tolerant citizen.”, the court added.
Conservative legal organization First Liberty Institute took up Kennedy’s case in 2016, but lost both in district court and at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court similarly denied the request, but four justices – Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh – issued a statement expressing serious concern about how the district and lower courts had interpreted teachers’ First Amendment rights.
In 2020, the Supreme Court remanded the case to U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton, who again sided with the district, as did the 9th Circuit in mid-2021. Attorneys for First Liberty and Kirkland & Ellis refiled the case with the U.S. Supreme Court in September 2021, and the high court agreed to hear it in January 2022.
Kennedy’s press release about his victory said, “This is just so awesome.”. My dream has always been to be back on the field with my teammates.”
“I am very grateful to the Supreme Court, my great legal team, and everyone who has helped me,” he said. “Thank you, God, for answering our prayers and keeping my family strong during this long struggle.”
Kelly Shackelford, President, CEO, and Chief Counsel for First Liberty, said the victory was huge for Coach Kennedy and religious freedom for all Americans.
“Our Constitution protects every American’s right to practice private religion, which includes prayer in public without fear of retaliation,” said Shackleton. The Supreme Court has recognized what the Constitution and law have always said – Americans are allowed to practice their faith in public.