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Supreme Court rules 6-3 in favor of religious freedom rights of football coach fired for praying at midfield


Continuing its strong showing last week on the side of religious freedom, the Supreme Court has come down 6-3 on the side of a former high school football coach who was fired for praying at midfield after games. The ruling was announced on Twitter by SCOTUSblog:

The decision in the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District is a significant victory for religious employees who work for public institutions as it affirms their right to personal religious expression.

In the majority opinion, authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Court found that,

“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. 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.”

Joseph “Joe” Kennedy, a devout Christian, would go to the 50-yard line after games for a brief personal prayer of thanksgiving after games and, though Kennedy never asked or required them to, some students did choose to join him in his prayers. Bremerton School District, Kennedy’s former employer, fired him when he refused to stop, arguing that by praying in view of students, the coach was coercing students to engage in religious exercise.

In deciding the case, Gorsuch argued that contrary to the school’s claim, when Kennedy prayed after games, he was not acting in his official capacity or speaking for the school. His private religious expression was wholly separate from his job duties.

The majority opinion held, “There is no conflict between the constitutional commands of the First Amendment in this case. There is only the ‘mere shadow’ of a conflict, a false choice premised on a misconstruction of the Establishment Clause.”

Gorsuch wrote, In essence, the District asks us to adopt the view that the only acceptable government role models for students are those who eschew any visible religious expression.” Noting that Justice Sotomayor made this argument in her dissent, he said, “If the argument sounds familiar, it should. Really, it is just another way of repackaging the District’s earlier submission that government may script everything a teacher or coach says in the workplace.”

He added,

“The only added twist here is the District’s suggestion not only that it may prohibit teachers from engaging in any demonstrative religious activity, but that it must do so in order to conform to the Constitution. Such a rule would be a sure sign that our Establishment Clause jurisprudence had gone off the rails.”

Gorsuch stated, “In the name of protecting religious liberty, the District would have us suppress it. Rather than respect the First Amendment’s double protection for religious expression, it would have us preference secular activity.

He noted that under such a view, teachers or coaches could be fired for praying over their lunch, wearing a yarmulke to school, or praying during a personal break when no students were present. In fact, he said, under the District’s rule, “a school would be required to do so.”

Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Kagan and Justice Breyer, wrote the dissent, arguing,

“This case is about whether a public school must permit a school official to kneel, bow his head, and say a prayer at the center of a school event. The Constitution does not authorize, let alone require, public schools to embrace this conduct.”

She concluded that the Court now “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, eroding the protections for religious liberty for all.”

Kelly Shackelford, president, CEO, and chief counsel for First Liberty Institute, which represented Kennedy, hailed the decision as a major victory for individual rights in a statement, saying:

“This is a tremendous victory for Coach Kennedy and religious liberty for all Americans. Our Constitution protects the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired.  We are grateful that the Supreme Court recognized what the Constitution and law have always said — Americans are free to live out their faith in public.”

Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch, which supported the Kennedy case in an amicus brief, also celebrated the majority’s take, stating,

“As the Supreme Court has affirmed, Coach Kennedy’s personal prayer of gratitude at the end of a football game is protected under the First Amendment both as religious exercise and as private speech, free from government censorship. American citizens don’t give up the right to prayerfully practice their faith during working hours when they accept a job with a public employer. We are pleased the Supreme Court reversed the 9th Circuit’s ruling that wrongly reasoned that Coach Kennedy’s personal, on-field prayers were not his own, but the government’s, and affirmed his constitutional right to exercise his faith, as is true for every American.”

For his part, Kennedy, a former U.S. Marine, was overjoyed by his win, especially since he is now free to once again pursue employment as a high school football coach — and to exercise his constitutional right to go out onto the field after games and personally thank God.

On learning of the decision, he exclaimed, “This is just so awesome. All I’ve ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys. I am incredibly grateful to the Supreme Court, my fantastic legal team, and everyone who has supported us. I thank God for answering our prayers and sustaining my family through this long battle.”

Kennedy later discussed his feelings and next steps in a conversation with his attorneys:

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