Supreme Court rules for former coach in public school prayer case

Former coach Joseph Kennedy argued that the Bremerton School District in Washington state violated his religious freedom by telling him he couldn’t pray on the field after games.


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a former Washington state high school football coach had a right to pray on the field immediately after games. 

The 6-3 ruling was a victory for Joseph Kennedy, who claimed that the Bremerton School District violated his religious freedom by telling him he couldn’t pray so publicly after the games. The district said it was trying to avoid the appearance that the school was endorsing a religious point of view.

"Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s," Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. "Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor. The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike."

In recent years, a more conservative Supreme Court has been inclined to view government actions it once considered to be neutral and necessary to maintain separation of church and state as hostile to religious expression

One issue in the case was whether the coach’s decision to pray in such a prominent place, on the 50-yard line, amounted to a private moment of giving thanks or a public demonstration of his religious faith that his players may have felt compelled to join. 

Kennedy urged the Supreme Court to find that he was acting on his own behalf, expressing his own religious views, not speaking as a mouthpiece for the school. But the school district said the students on the football team looked up to their coach and felt coerced into doing as he did. 

Then-Bremerton assistant football coach Joseph Kennedy, obscured at center in blue, is surrounded by Centralia players after they took a knee with him and prayed after their game against Bremerton, in Bremerton, Wash., on Oct. 16, 2015.Meegan M. Reid / Kitsap Sun via AP file

In a dissent joined by the two other liberal justices, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the court "consistently has recognized that school officials leading prayer is constitutionally impermissible" and said the ruling did a "disservice" to schools, students and "the nation's longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state.”

"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," Sotomayor wrote. "In doing so, the Court sets us further down a perilous path in forcing States to entangle themselves with religion, with all of our rights hanging in the balance."

Further, the majority misrepresented some key points in the case, she wrote.

In the majority opinion, Gorsuch wrote that “Kennedy lost his job” “after he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet personal prayer.

But Sotomayor wrote, "To the degree the Court portrays petitioner Joseph Kennedy’s prayers as private and quiet, it misconstrues the facts. The record reveals that Kennedy had a longstanding practice of conducting demonstrative prayers on the 50- yard line of the football field. Kennedy consistently invited others to join his prayers and for years led student athletes in prayer at the same time and location. The Court ignores this history. The Court also ignores the severe disruption to school events caused by Kennedy’s conduct," she wrote.

Kennedy became an assistant coach of the varsity football team at Bremerton High School in 2008 and later began offering a brief prayer on the field after games ended and the players and coaches met midfield to shake hands. The school district eventually told him he should find a private location to pray.

But he declined and continued his practice of dropping to one knee and praying on the 50-yard line. He later invited journalists and a state legislator to watch. The district gave him a poor performance evaluation, and he did not apply to renew his contract after the 2015 football season. Kennedy sued, claiming violations of his right to free expression and religious freedom.

Lower federal courts said that because he chose to say his prayers in such a prominent place, he was acting as a public employee and his conduct was therefore not protected by the First Amendment. Those rulings cited past Supreme Court decisions that said when public employees act in their official capacities, they are speaking more for the government than for themselves.

Former Vice President Mike Pence praised Monday's ruling in a statement, saying, “Americans of faith do not turn their devotion off and on like a light switch, and we must reject any attempt by the government to control private religious expression — especially those who call on their faith when answering the call to participate in public service.” The nonprofit conservative advocacy group he founded, Advancing American Freedom, filed a friend of the court brief in the case.

Katy Joseph, the director of policy and advocacy at the advocacy group Interfaith Alliance, said the decision "dismantles decades of progress."

“Exploiting his position of authority, coach Joseph Kennedy pushed players to participate in prayer in the middle of the field immediately after games," Joseph said. "This was no private expression of devotion, as he and his lawyers claim. Instead, Mr. Kennedy forced students to choose between their religious freedom and being part of the team — an agonizing decision that no student should ever be forced to confront."

Kennedy now lives in Florida but has said that if the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, he would return to Bremerton and seek to regain his job as a part-time football coach.