The Supreme Court ruled in favor of a former high school football coach who was fired from his job after reciting a prayer after games.
Joe Kennedy lost his job as a junior varsity head coach and varsity assistant coach because he felt at the 50-yard line to pray after games. The incident occurred at Bremerton School District in Washington.
As a public school employee, administrators argued his prayer occurred “in view of students” and was “engagin in unprotected government speech.”
The Supreme Court ruled overwhelming 6-3 that the public school violated Kennedy’s “personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, “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,” Gorsuch added.
Justice Clarence Thomas also noted how the prayer couldn’t possibly be viewed as “government speech” given how the school district vehemently and publicly opposes prayer.
While Kennedy began the reciting a post-game prayer alone, others eventually started joining him at their sole discretion, including students.
Court documents said the prayer evolved into motivational speeches that included religious themes.
The school district asked Kennedy to stop, but he ultimately resumed and refused to stop praying.
More on this story via Fox News:
The situation garnered media attention, and when Kennedy announced that he would go back to praying on the field, it raised security concerns. When he did pray after the game, a number of people stormed the field in support.
The school district then offered to let Kennedy pray in other locations before and after games, or for him to pray on the 50-yard line after everyone else had left the premises, but he refused, insisting that he would continue his regular practice. After continuing the prayers at two more games, the school district placed Kennedy on leave…
Kennedy’s attorney Paul Clement argued before the court that firing him was a clear constitutional violation because not only was Kennedy engaged in private – not government – speech, but that the school was “taking action precisely because the speech is religious.”
Justice Elena Kagan had expressed concern during arguments that as a coach who determines players’ playing time, Kennedy’s prayers could have a coercive effect on students. Indeed, a lower court opinion noted that the principal had been contacted by a parent who said his son “felt compelled to participate” in the prayer despite being an atheist, because “he felt he wouldn’t get to play as much if he didn’t participate.”
Clement rejected that argument, stating that the school district never raised that issue as a reason for disciplining Kennedy.