Supreme Court rules in favor of former Bremerton football coach

High court’s 6-3 decision states Joe Kennedy was terminated without justification

By Mike De Felice

Kitsap News Group

Bremerton High School was the epicenter of a landmark religious freedom legal case over whether football coach Joe Kennedy has the right to pray on the 50-yard line following games.

The school district let the coach go, concerned that the coach’s actions could be seen as an endorsement of religion by the public school, thus violating the separation of church and state.

The monumental legal ruling came in a case titled Joseph Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 27 in favor of Kennedy, stating that the coach should not have lost his job for praying. The conservative-leaning court, by a 6-3 margin, ruled that the district violated Kennedy’s First Amendment right to free speech when it directed him to stop praying. The district said it had offered an alternative private place for Kennedy to pray off the football field.

Legal experts say the decision is expected to lead to Kennedy getting back his old coaching job.

The six-year legal dispute arose when the coach refused to stop praying after football games. At times, the prayers took place with players on Kennedy’s team and members of the opposing team participating. When Kennedy continued his practice despite objections from school officials, the Bremerton School District placed the assistant football coach on paid leave on Oct. 28, 2015. The district did not renew Kennedy’s contract.

Represented by First Liberty Institute, a legal organization that advocates for religious liberty, Kennedy filed a lawsuit against the school. Over six years, the case worked through the federal courts and eventually was heard by the Supreme Court. The case pitted the coach’s freedom of speech and religion against the establishment clause. The Establishment Clause of the Constitution states that Congress can “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the majority of the court, said, “The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.

He goes on to say: “That the First Amendment doubly protects religious speech is no accident. It is a natural outgrowth of the framers’ distrust of government attempts to regulate religion and suppress dissent.

“Respect for religious expression is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic…Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance…The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”

Meanwhile, Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued the dissenting opinion that was signed by three justices. It stated, “This decision does a disservice to schools and the young citizens they serve, as well as to our Nation’s longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state.”

Sotomayor complained that the majority of the justices ignored established facts surrounding the coach’s actions. The majority described the coach’s prayers as being “quiet” and “private,” and done while his students “were otherwise occupied.”

Sotomayor countered with photos of the coach on the field with athletes near him. She stated, “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 dissenting opinion also stated the record showed “that some students reported joining Kennedy’s prayer because they felt social pressure to follow their coach and teammates.”

Following the Supreme Court’s decision, the school district stated: “The district will comply with the court’s ruling, even as we continue to ensure – as we must – that employees don’t coerce or pressure students to pray or take part in religious exercises contrary to the students’ and their families’ faith.”

District officials said they are assessing the decision and cannot confirm whether Kennedy will be coaching in the fall.