The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday that the Bremerton School District violated the First Amendment rights of high school football coach Joe Kennedy when he lost his job for refusing to stop his post-game prayer sessions at the 50-yard line following football games.
The conservative-dominated high court’s judges decided the case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, with a 6-3 decision that fell along ideological lines.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote in the majority opinion, stated that “The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.”
The justices wrote that Kennedy’s prayers constituted First Amendment-protected private speech and could not be impinged upon by the school district.
As a result of the high court’s decision, some observers say it will blur the line between church and state, and allow for more public religious expression.
“We are aware of no historically sound understanding of the Establishment Clause that begins to ‘[make] it necessary for government to be hostile to religion’ in this way,” Gorsuch stated in the majority opinion.
In a statement released after the decision was announced, Kennedy stated, “All I’ve ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys. I thank God for answering our prayers and sustaining my family through this long battle.”
Writing for the three dissenting judges, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the court’s decision weakens the Establishment Clause’s “backstop” protecting religious freedom.
“It elevates one individual’s interest in personal religious exercise, in the exact time and place of that individual’s choosing, over society’s interest in protecting the separation between church and state, eroding the protections for religious liberty for all,” Sotomayor wrote in the minority opinion.
School district responds
Bremerton School District issued a statement Monday morning. In read in part: “In light of the court’s decision, we will work with our attorneys to make certain that the Bremerton School District remains a welcoming, inclusive environment for all students, their families and our staff. We look forward to moving past this distraction of this 7-year legal battle so that our school community can focus on what matters most: providing our children the best education possible.”
The case originated in 2015 when the school district barred Kennedy, who was an assistant high school football coach at the time, from delivering prayers to players and other students mid-field after games, according to lawyers representing BSD.
District officials said they attempted to accommodate Kennedy’s desire to pray at work in ways that would be lawful and respect students’ religious freedom. The coach, however, refused to stop his post-game prayer activities. Kennedy was then put on paid administrative leave. He decided later not to reapply for his position.
Kennedy instead sued the school district, claiming he had a right to pray with students on the 50-yard line immediately after games. He lost his case at the district court level and before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which stated that Kennedy’s prayer amounted to governmental speech that is not protected by the First Amendment. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., joined the school district’s legal team last year.
“The Bremerton School District followed the law and protected students’ religious freedom when it stopped its football coach from holding coercive prayers with players on the 50-yard line after high school football games,” said Rachel Laser, the organization’s president.
Last week, the Supreme Court burnished its right-leaning decisions by ruling that the state of Maine couldn’t exclude religious schools from tuition assistance programs, also decided by a 6-3 decision.