Supreme Court backs high school football coach placed on leave for praying after games


Supreme Court rules that high school football coach DID have a constitutional right to pray at the 50-yard line after his team’s games – and was wrongly punished for it

  • The case pits First Amendment rights to free speech against the separation of church and state
  • The high court’s ruling could pave the way for fewer restrictions on religious liberty in schools
  •  In a 6-3 ruling the court sided with former coach Joseph Kennedy, who was put on leave for refusing to stop his prayers at the 50-yard-line 
  •  The school had argued that they did not want students to feel pressured to join Joseph Kennedy in prayer
  • Kennedy’s lawyers argued that their client had only been offering silent, solitary prayers

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of a former Washington high school football coach who ho was put on leave for praying at the 50-yard line after his team’s games.

The case pits First Amendment rights to free speech against the separation of church and state, and the high court’s ruling could pave the way for fewer restrictions on religious liberty in schools. 

In a 6-3 ruling the court sided with former coach Joseph Kennedy,  who was put on leave when the school said that his prayers violated separation church and state. 

Former Bremerton High School football coach Joseph Kennedy (pictured in March), a Marine, said the district infringed on his religious freedom by refusing to let him continue praying at the 50-yard line after games. The Supreme Court will hear his case on Monday

Former Bremerton High School football coach Joseph Kennedy (pictured in March), a Marine, said the district infringed on his religious freedom by refusing to let him continue praying at the 50-yard line after games. The Supreme Court will hear his case on Monday

Kennedy said he would happily return to the district to coach again if he wins the case

Kennedy said he would happily return to the district to coach again if he wins the case

Kennedy, pictured with students after the 2015 game, said he never forced students to join him. At least one player spoke out anonymously to say he felt pressured to play

Kennedy, pictured with students after the 2015 game, said he never forced students to join him. At least one player spoke out anonymously to say he felt pressured to play

At issue was whether a public school employee praying alone but in the public view of students represented unprotected ‘government speech’ and if not then does it violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from making any law ‘respecting the establishment of a religion.’ 

The Supreme Court ruled ‘no’ on both ends. 

The conservative justices’ ruling comes as no surprise given that after a lower court ruled against Kennedy they issued a public statement on the preliminary ruling. 

While the school had argued that they did not want students to feel pressured to join Joseph Kennedy in prayer, Kennedy’s lawyers argued that their client had only been offering silent, solitary prayers of thanks after his team’s games. 

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a majority opinion: ‘A government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. And the only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisal rested on a mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.’

Kennedy, a Marine and Washington state assistant high school football coach, said the Bremerton School District infringed on his religious freedom by refusing to let him continue praying at the midfield after games following an incident where students joined him in the prayer in September 2015.

Lawyers for the district said Kennedy was allowed to pray by himself, but following three more instances of the coach praying with students on the field and in locker rooms, he was placed on administrative leave and his contract was dropped in 2016, the New York Times reported.

The district added that it had received a slew of complaints and threats following news of Kennedy’s prayers for allegedly influencing students to join him.

Richard B. Katskee, a lawyer for the Bremerton School District, said that school was entitled to ask employees to refrain from public prayer if students felt pressured into joining. But some of the court’s conservative justices poked holes in this argument.

They said that the school initially argued that they needed to stop Kennedy from praying because the school would be perceived as endorsing religion. They suggested that fear of coercion was a rationalization made after the fact. ‘

Despite the school district's order, Kennedy was pictured in October 2015 praying while surrounded by students. His attorney's claim that stopping him from prayer violates his freedom of religion while the district contends that letting him lead prayers is a violation of the student's own freedom of religion

Despite the school district’s order, Kennedy was pictured in October 2015 praying while surrounded by students. His attorney’s claim that stopping him from prayer violates his freedom of religion while the district contends that letting him lead prayers is a violation of the student’s own freedom of religion

The school district said Kennedy was not allowed to lead prayers with students on the field after they joined him in 2015 (pictured). After repeated instances, the district opted to drop his contract in 2016, with Kennedy choosing not to apply again

The school district said Kennedy was not allowed to lead prayers with students on the field after they joined him in 2015 (pictured). After repeated instances, the district opted to drop his contract in 2016, with Kennedy choosing not to apply again 

‘It’s not audible to all players,’ said Justice Brett Kavanaugh. ‘They’re not all there. They don’t have to be there. It’s not a team event. … You’re relying on it being visible, and then the question is, how far does that go? The coach does the sign of the cross right before the game. Could a school fire the coach for the sign of the cross?’

Katskee, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that such a display would be ‘perfect fine,’ so long as the coach wasn’t addressing the team or making himself the center of attention.

‘I don’t know how we could write an opinion that would draw a line based on not making yourself the center of attention as the head coach of a game,’ Kavanaugh said.

But liberal justice Elena Kagan implied that the school could be worried that students could feel pressure to take part in prayer to win the coach’s favor.

Kagan said the school could have thought: ‘We’re worried that the students will feel he gets to put me into a football game, or not. He gets to give me an A in math class, or not. And this is a kind of coercion that’s improper for 16-year-olds,’ Kagan said.

Kennedy contended that praying at the 50-yard is his own personal ritual, which he has done since 2008, and that he has never asked any students to join him.

After a few games, some of the players asked him what he was doing and he told them he was ‘thanking God for you guys’ before a couple of players, who said they were Christian, asked if they could join.

‘It was never any kind of thing where it was a mandatory thing,’ he told the Times.

Although Kennedy claims no one has ever felt pressured to join him, one student player had come forward anonymously to say he joined in one of the prayers despite his own beliefs due to fear of losing play time.

When the school district learned of Kennedy’s practice in 2015, it told him he needed to stop praying with students or engaging in overtly religious activity while on duty as a coach. He continued to pray on the field, though his lawyers say he stopped leading students in doing so, and was placed on paid leave.

His contract expired and he didn’t reapply to coach the following year, the school says.

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