The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a former high school football coach in Bremerton, who prayed with his players and other students on the field, could legally do so under his First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.
The high court ruled 6-3 Monday in Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District along ideological lines for Joseph Kennedy, a former part-time assistant coach. Every Republican-appointed justice sided with Kennedy; every Democratic-appointed justice dissented.
“The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority.
The decision marks a substantial ruling in the decades-old argument over prayer in public schools. In weighing the religious rights of school officials with the rights of students to not feel pressured to participate in religious practices, the court came down firmly on Kennedy’s side.
Students, Gorsuch wrote, were not required to participate in Kennedy’s prayer sessions, and the prayers were not publicly broadcast. He wrote that Kennedy’s prayer, on the 50-yard line immediately after games ended, occurred “while his students were otherwise occupied.”
In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the Constitution neither requires nor authorizes public schools to allow officials to pray “at the center of a school event.” She included a photo of Kennedy raising a helmet, surrounded by dozens of players kneeling in prayer.
She cited the same sections of the Bill of Rights as the majority, writing that they protected students who have a right to education free from government-exercised religion.
“Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections
for the religious liberty of students and their parents,” Sotomayor wrote.
The court’s decision, she wrote, “elevates one individual’s interest in personal religious exercise, in the exact time and place of that individual’s choosing, over society’s interest in protecting the separation between church and state.”
Kennedy, who served in the Marine Corps for nearly two decades, started coaching at the school in 2008 and initially prayed alone on the 50-yard line at the end of games. But students and players soon joined him and he began giving short talks with religious references.
The district learned of his prayers and talks and asked him to stop. Initially, he said he would comply and stopped leading students in prayer in the locker room and on the field. But he wanted to continue praying on the field himself, with students free to join if they wished.
The district had said Kennedy was free to pray on the 50-yard line if it didn’t interfere with his official duties, or when he was off duty, but doing so immediately after a game ended could be seen as the school endorsing religion.
“This is just so awesome,” Kennedy said Monday, in a statement. “All I’ve ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys.”
“This is just me thanking God for 15 seconds after a football game,” Kennedy told The Seattle Times on Monday. He said his intention was to pray alone, but if students and others join in, that’s up to them. “Hopefully it’s just by myself and we can move on from this.”
Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, which oversees public schools in the state, said it and local school districts will continue to investigate complaints of school officials who use their position to compel religious participation.
“It remains illegal and unethical for public school employees to coerce, pressure, persuade, or force students, players, staff, or other participants to engage in any religious practice as a condition of playing, employment, belonging, or participation,” OSPI wrote Monday.
OSPI said the ruling affirmed that school employees can engage in individual prayer as long as it’s not part of their official responsibilities and there’s no expectation that others join.
“Individuals have always held express rights to exercise their own faith within reasonable limits in public spaces,” state Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal said in a statement. “Schools will not embrace a particular faith or compel any individual to participate or recognize any faith or religious practice.”
Kennedy moved to Florida two years ago to help care for an ailing family member but previously said if he won the case he would be on “the very first flight back.”
Monday, he said there were some logistics that likely need to be worked out with the school district and there’s “a lot of discussions that I need to have with my family.”
Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty Institute, a nationwide legal organization focused on religious liberty, which represented Kennedy, said it was a “tremendous victory.”
“Our Constitution protects the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired,” Shackelford said. “[Americans] are free to live out their faith in public.”
Kennedy and his attorneys implied Monday that they expected him to be back on the sidelines in the fall.
“The goal has been to get coach back on the field, and this looks like a pretty good football season coming up,” said Hiram Sasser, executive general counsel at First Liberty Institute. “This is the ultimate thing that we’ve got to get accomplished for the rest of the case is getting back on the field there in September.”
The Bremerton School District, in a prepared statement, said it would work with its attorneys to make sure it “remains a welcoming, inclusive environment for all students, their families and our staff.”
“When we learned that a district employee was leading students in prayer, we followed the law and acted to protect the religious freedom of all students and their families,” the district said.
The district said it was assessing the decision and what it means and “cannot confirm at this time” whether Kennedy will coach in the fall.
“The District will comply with the Court’s ruling, even as we continue to ensure — as we must — that employees don’t coerce or pressure students to pray or take part in religious exercises contrary to the students’ and their families’ faith,” the school district said.
Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represented the school district in court, called the decision devastating.
“This decision represents the greatest loss of religious freedom in our country in generations,” she said. “This court focused only on the demands of far-right Christian extremists, robbing everyone else of their religious freedom. It ignored the religious freedom of students and families.”
Bremerton’s attorneys said the district would comply with the court’s ruling, but noted that the court wrote that protecting students from religious coercion still matters, even if the majority opinion ruled Kennedy’s actions were not coercive.
“We have serious doubts about whether Kennedy really wants to coach again no matter what he might be saying now,” said Richard Katskee, the Americans United attorney who argued for Bremerton before the Supreme Court. Kennedy, Katskee said, has sold his house in Washington and registered to vote in Florida.
Taryn Darling, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Washington, which filed an amicus brief in the case supporting the school district, said the decision erodes protections for public school students to “learn and grow free of coercion.”
“Kitsap County is a religiously diverse community and students reported they felt coerced to pray,” Darling said. “This decision strains the separation of church and state — a bedrock principle of our democracy — and potentially harms our youth.”