Praying Football Coach Wins Victory At Supreme Court

(Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Nicole Silverio Media Reporter
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The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of a high school football coach in Washington whose employer fired him in 2015 for kneeling in prayer on the 50-yard line after games.

The Court ruled in the case Kennedy v. Bremerton School District that the coach’s rights to the First Amendment’s free speech and Free Exercise clauses were violated by the Bremerton School District in a majority opinion authored by Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch.

The Court took up the case in April after former high school coach Joseph Kennedy sued in federal court, alleging that the Bremerton School District violated his First Amendment rights.

“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,” Gorsuch wrote.

The opinion of the Court ruled the school district “mistakenly” believed that by allowing for Kennedy’s religious practices and observances, that would lead them to endorsing his religious beliefs, the majority opinion noted. The Court deemed the termination of the coach’s employment unconstitutional as the Constitution establishes “mutual respect and tolerance” for both religious and secular beliefs and customs.

Gorsuch additionally noted that Kennedy did not engage his students in prayer, but rather practiced a religious observance individually, leading to the conclusion that the District intentionally prohibited a religious practice. The ruling argued that a teacher or faculty’s constitutional protections are not stripped on school grounds, given that in this case, the faculty are government employees and are “paid in part to speak on the government’s behalf,” the ruling said.

“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic,” the ruling said. “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.” (RELATED: Praying  Football Coach Will Sue Washington School District For Refusing To Let Him Pray)

Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh joined Gorsuch in filing the majority opinion. Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan filed a dissenting opinion.

In April, the conservative justices initially argued that Kennedy had not violated the First Amendment because he was not speaking on behalf of the government.

“What is perhaps most troubling about the Ninth Circuit’s opinion is language that can be understood to mean that a coach’s duty to serve as a good role model requires the coach to refrain from any manifestation of religious faith — even when the coach is plainly not on duty,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote when the court initially denied the case certiorari in 2019. 

“What if the coach, instead of taking a knee for a prayer, took a knee during the national anthem because of moral opposition to racism,” Justice Clarence Thomas asked.

Kennedy, who had begun working at the school district in 2008, had been initially reprimanded by the school for his private prayers on the field and was then fired for violating his employer’s demands to stop. He first filed suit in 2016 with the First Liberty Institute as his legal counsel, then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit, who both sided with the school district.

The Court recently struck down a Maine policy that excluded religious schools from a private school tuition assistance program.