SCOTUS rules in favor of football coach’s post-game prayer tradition

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of the First Amendment rights of a former high school football coach who lost his job over his post-game practice of a brief prayer at midfield.

That ruling was obviously a win for religious freedom, but the coach himself, Joseph Kennedy, told Fox News that the high court’s decision was “a victory for everybody in America.”

Coach lost job

Coach Kennedy had been suspended and then let go by Washington state’s Bremerton High School in 2015 after he had continued to conduct his post-game prayer routine despite the school district warning him to cease doing so.

Those post-game prayers, which had taken place for several years without any complaints or problems, had initially begun with Kennedy taking a knee alone on the 50-yard line to quietly give thanks, though over time members of his team, as well as coaches and players from opposing teams, joined him, and the practice evolved from a quick, silent prayer to become a brief motivational speech that included religious references.

The school district, over concerns that the prayers might be construed as a violation of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, eventually ordered Kennedy to stop, and though the coach made alterations to the manner of his traditional post-game prayer, he nonetheless continued to do so and was ultimately punished with a suspension followed by a decision to not renew his contract.

Protected by First Amendment

According to SCOTUSblog, Kennedy sued the school district for allegedly violating his First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of religious expression, but a federal district court ruled against him and that ruling was later affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Those lower court rulings were just reversed by a 6-3 majority led by Justice Neil Gorsuch, however, which determined that the school district had, in fact, violated Kennedy’s free speech and free exercise rights as protected by the First Amendment.

“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,” Gorsuch wrote in conclusion. “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,” he concluded.

Allegations of coercion

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by the other two liberal jurists, authored a dissent in which she alleged that Kennedy’s post-game prayers had been coercive of the student-athletes and unconstitutionally prompted them to join in the act even if they didn’t agree or felt uncomfortable.

But Kennedy had long made clear, and Gorsuch agreed, that the prayers were voluntary and nobody was ever compelled to join. Further, Gorsuch wrote that “learning how to tolerate speech or prayer of all kinds is ‘part of learning how to live in a pluralistic society,’ a trait of character essential to ‘a tolerant citizenry.'”

In speaking to Fox News following the verdict, Kennedy said of the coercion claims, “They brought that up out of the blue, out of who knows where,” and added, “If anybody had a problem with anything, we are so close that’s all we did was talk about things. And we respect each other. Bremerton is the most diverse school. You know that whole stuff about diversity and being inclusive? Well, that applies to everybody. People of faith, people of no faith, different faiths, it doesn’t matter.”

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