BREMERTON, WA – In a major win for religious freedom and the First Amendment, a fired high school football coach from Washington State celebrated a victory out of the United States Supreme Court on Monday.
The case stemmed out of Bremerton, where Joe Kennedy was the junior varsity head coach and varsity assistant coach from 2008 to 2015. Kennedy started praying on the 50-yard line of the field after every game, which eventually led to some of the team members joining him.
The two questions argued in the case were, first, whether the coach (an employee of a public school) praying in view of students (albeit alone) was unprotected “government speech,” and second, if it was not government speech, is it still an issue under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which “forbids the government from establishing an official religion, but also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another,” according to Cornell Law School.
According to attorney, Paul Clement, Kennedy’s constitutional rights were violated when he was fired because what he said during the post-game meetings along and to the students who voluntarily joined him was private speech, not government. Additionally, the school was, he said, “taking action precisely because the speech is religious.”
Clement argued that Kennedy’s religious freedoms were violated. The district argued that they didn’t want it to appear that they were promoting one religion over the other, and another argument made was whether players would feel “compelled” to participate since Kennedy controlled their playing time.
Kennedy said the prayer time was a private time of reflection and gratitude and no one was forced or coerced to participate. He said he was expressing his own religious beliefs and practices.
Kennedy said that during the post-game meetings, he would talk to the players and give them motivational speeches which also included religion- specifically, God and Jesus. The meetings were voluntary and Kennedy did not ask the team members to come out there with him, but they gravitated to participate completely on their own.
At one of their home games, an opposing team’s coach told the principal about the post-game meeting with prayer, and the Bremerton School District told Kennedy to stop. Kennedy agreed, but then changed his mind and told the district that he would be resuming his post-game prayer and meetings with any members of the team who chose to join him.
Despite the fact that people came on the field every time Kennedy did have the meetings that included prayer to join and support him, the district still told him that it was a “security risk” and told him he could pray at other locations instead pre- and post-game. They also told him that he could wait until everyone else left if he still wanted to pray on the 50-yard line.
Kennedy made the decision to continue the practice of prayer and motivational meetings on the 50-yard line. After two more games, Kennedy was put on leave by the district, and eventually fired.
In the Court’s final opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, “Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic — whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head.
“Here, 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.”
The Court ruling was decided 6-3.