Supreme Court Says School District Violated Football Coach’s Rights When It Punished Him for Praying on the Field

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the side of freedom of religion and expression in a 6-3 vote in favor of Coach Joseph Kennedy, punished by a government school district after he refused to stop praying on the football field after games.

The court held that the “Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal; the Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression.”

In the majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote (PDF) that respect for religious expressions “is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic. Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance, based on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”

Coach Kennedy quietly prayed on the 50-yard line after games. Players from both teams had the option to join him. The Bremerton School District in Washington told him to stop, but the coach kept on praying. The district suspended him and then refused to rehire him at the end of his contract.

The school district claimed that Kennedy was acting as a government employee, and his actions violated the district’s policy against school staff indirectly encouraging or discouraging students from engaging in religious activity. His prayers amounted to “government speech,” which violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Justice Gorsuch disagreed.

“Mr. Kennedy prayed during a period when school employees were free to speak with a friend, call for a reservation at a restaurant, check email, or attend to other personal matters,” he wrote.” He offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied.”

The Bremerton School District didn’t act on Coach Kennedy’s praying until after he’d received a compliment for it. Kassie Dulin of First Liberty, which represents Kennedy, appeared on an episode of CURE America with Star Parker to talk about it.

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