The Supreme Court has ruled in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the case of Coach Joe Kennedy of Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Wash., whom the school district fired in 2015 because he prayed with players at the 50-yard-line following football games.
By a 6-3 margin, the court ruled in favor of Kennedy.
“The Court holds that both the free exercise and free speech clauses protect Kennedy’s right to pray at midfield following high school football games,” reported Amy Howe on the SCOTUSblog live feed of the Supreme Court decisions on Monday.
Justice Neil Gorsuch issued the majority opinion, in which he wrote:
Mr. Kennedy prayed during a period when school employees were free to speak with a friend, call for a reservation at a restaurant, check email, or attend to other personal matters. He offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied. Still, the Bremerton School District disciplined him anyway. It did so because it thought anything less could lead a reasonable observer to conclude (mistakenly) that it endorsed Mr. Kennedy’s religious beliefs. That reasoning was misguided. Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor. The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.
“Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents, as embodied in both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in the dissenting opinion. “The Court now charts a different path, yet again paying almost exclusive attention to the Free Exercise Clause’s protection for individual religious exercise while giving short shrift to the Establishment Clause’s prohibition on state establishment of religion.”
Kennedy prayed with his players for years before anyone complained, but in 2015 the school system placed him on administrative leave following a warning that his prayers violated district policy.
“The school board has not received any complaints about Kennedy’s prayers,” I wrote at the time. “In fact, many Bremerton players stand and pray alongside him after the game, and coaches and players from other teams have joined in as well. In fact, the homecoming prayer huddle included a downright impressive representation for both teams.”
Shortly after that, the school refused to renew the coach’s contract. With the help of the Liberty Institute, Kennedy sued the district, and nearly seven years later, his case landed before the Supreme Court.
Fox News reports that Kennedy “began the practice of reciting a post-game prayer by himself, but eventually students started joining him” and also pointed out that an opposing coach was the one who first made an issue of the post-game prayers.
When the court heard oral arguments in the case, the hearing took twice the allotted amount of time. ESPN reported that “the justices seemed divided along ideological lines,” with Justice Sonia Sotomayor even suggesting that Kennedy’s prayers were just for show. However, Amy Howe of SCOTUSblog pointed out that “a majority of the Supreme Court appeared sympathetic” to the coach.
As we awaited the verdict in this case, left-wing media lined up predictably against Kennedy. Nancy Armour wrote in USA Today about the “larger problems” that a ruling in the coach’s favor would bring, while Sports Illustrated headlined its story about the case as “When Faith and Football Teamed Up Against American Democracy.”
“It is clear, the court says, that Kennedy’s speech was private rather than government speech,” Howe also pointed out at SCOTUSblog.
I haven’t seen a reaction from Kennedy yet, but I’ll update when we do hear from him.