The United States Supreme Court handed down a decision on Monday morning in the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, finding that a football coach for a public high school in Washington state had his First Amendment rights taken from him after being put on a administrative leave by the school district and prohibited from participating in the sport because he prayed on the field after the games in view of the pupils.
“The Supreme Court took the side of a high school football coach in a First Amendment case about praying at the 50-yard line,” the SCOTUS Blog tweeted this morning. “The court ruled that a public school district had infringed on the coach’s free speech and religious freedom rights by preventing him from praying on the field after the ball games, according to a 6-3 decision.” The case was decided along political lines.
Justice Neil Gorsuch was the author of the majority opinion.
“Here is a government agency who wanted to punish a person for engaging in a short, quiet, personal religious practice that is protected in the First Amendment by both the Free Exercise and the Free Speech Clauses,” Gorsuch wrote. “And the only substantial justification the government had to give for its retaliation was a mistaken belief that it had an obligation to discover and suppress undesirable speech. Religious practices, while also permitting comparable secular expression. The Constitution neither requires nor endorses such treatment.”
In 2008, after a Marine veteran, John Kennedy started a practice of kneeling and praying following games as an assistant coach for the Bremerton High School football varsity team, it became a tradition. Some pupils volunteered to join him. After hearing about it from an opposing squad in 2015, a school official spoke with the coach about the situation. Kennedy was later put on an administrative leave and prohibited from “directly or indirectly participating in any manner in the BHS football program” after an investigation.
“Kennedy’s private religious activity did not even come close to breaching any barrier one might imagine between permissible personal expression and unlawful government coercion,” Gorsuch added Monday.
“Learning to tolerate speech and prayer of all kinds is part of acquiring the ability to live in a multicultural society, an important attribute of citizenship,” according to the court.
In 2016, the non-profit conservative legal group First Liberty Institute took over Kennedy’s cause, and it lost in both district court and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The request was denied by the United States Supreme Court in 2019, but four justices – Alito, Gorsuch, Thomas, and Kavanaugh – released a statement that expressed serious concerns about how the lower courts and school district had interpreted teachers’ First Amendment rights.