Joe Kennedy, a former assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Wash., poses for a photo March 9, 2022, at the school’s football field.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
In a religious freedoms case, the Supreme Court sided with a former high school football coach who prayed on the field immediately after games.
Joe Kennedy sued the school district he worked at, alleging it impeded his First Amendment rights.
The district had argued Kennedy was welcome to pray, but in private or away from students.
In a major case about religious freedoms, the Supreme Court on Monday sided with a former public high school football coach who lost his job six years ago for praying on the field after games.
Joe Kennedy, Bremerton High School’s former football coach, sued the Washington state-based school district, alleging it infringed on his First Amendment rights by requesting that he not pray at the 50-yard line immediately after football games.
Justice Neil Gorsuch delivered the majority opinion for the case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, writing: “The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.”
The court’s three liberal justices dissented.
The 6-3 ruling adds to a growing list of decisions handed down by the court’s conservative majority that protect and bolster religious rights. Last week, the court struck down a Maine program that prohibited taxpayer funds from going toward schools that offer religious teaching, declaring the rule was discriminatory.
In the current case, lawyers for Bremerton School District argued that they had no issue with Kennedy’s prayers, but requested that he pray alone and separately from students, to avoid pressuring them to join in prayer. Kennedy could return to the field to pray after students and other bystanders had vacated the area following games, the school district said.
Superintendent Aaron Leavell wrote to Kennedy on September 17, 2015 informing him that he was “free to engage in religious activity, including prayer, so long as it does not interfere with [his] job responsibilities,” according to a legal brief.
The school district said Kennedy’s conduct could be perceived as a government endorsement of religion, which the First Amendment’s establishment clause prohibits.
Despite numerous calls from the district, Kennedy continued to pray at the 50-yard line and participated in several media appearances in which he and his counsel continued to say that the only acceptable outcome would be for Kennedy to carry on as he pleased.
At times, students or other observers would join Kennedy in prayer, but the coach claimed that he never cared whether students did. Still, one student said he had joined in the prayer because, even though it was against his beliefs, he was fearful of losing playing time if he did not join his coach, the Associated Press reported.
The district ultimately placed Kennedy on leave for ignoring its requests. After multiple lower courts dismissed his legal challenges, Kennedy eventually turned to the Supreme Court, which took up his case.