Supreme Court Rules on Prayer Coach in Church-State Case

On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the former high school football coach whose prayers at the 50-yard line sparked crowds and controversy, declaring that his public prayers are protected as free speech.

The 6-3 decision is a symbolic victory for those looking for a bigger role for prayer and religion in public schools.

The Court emphasized that Coach Joe Kennedy’s prayers began as a private and personal expression and were not official acts of religious propaganda at the school.

In a letter on behalf of the majority, Judge Neil M. Gorsuch said, “The Free Action and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions such as Mr. Kennedy. A correct understanding of the clause establishing the amendment does not require the government to single out private religious speech as a special disfavor. The constitution and the best of our traditions call for mutual respect and tolerance, not for censorship and suppression of both religious and non-religious views.”

The three liberals of the court disagreed.

“This case is about whether a public school should allow a school official to kneel, bow his head, and recite a prayer at the center of a school event. The constitution does not allow, let alone require, public schools to engage in such behavior,” Judge Sonia Sotomayor said.

Since 1962, “this court has consistently held that it is constitutionally unacceptable for school officials to conduct prayers. Official prayer strikes at our constitutional protection of the religious freedom of students and their parents, embodied in both the Establishment Clause and the Free Enforcement Clause of the 1st Amendment,” Sotomayor said.

What began with a coach kneeling alone at the 50-yard line became a highly publicized event in 2015 that drew crowds of players and spectators to the field at the end of games.

Kennedy was an assistant coach on a one-year contract at Bremerton High School in Washington State when he began praying at the end of games. The school authorities warned him against continuing the prayers because they had become a public event. They said his prayers in schools could be seen as a violation of the constitutional ban on “establishing a religion”.

Kennedy said he would “fight” the decision and shared his views with local media. He was suspended when he refused to follow district guidelines and was not hired the following year.

With the help of the Texas-based First Freedom Institute, he filed a lawsuit against the school district challenging his dismissal.

The 1st Amendment protects freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion while prohibiting the “establishment of a religion”, and all three clauses were discussed in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.

The Supreme Court said the key issue was whether the coach’s prayer was personal and personal, or whether he instead acted as a public servant at the school.

“It seems clear to us that H. Kennedy demonstrated that his speech was a private speech and not a government speech.” Gorsuch wrote. “When Mr. Kennedy said the three prayers that led to his suspension. He did not usually give speeches as part of his coaching duties. He did not speak in accordance with government policy. He did not seek to convey a message created by the government. To put it simply: Mr. Kennedy’s prayers are not[e their] existence” to Mr. Kennedy’s Responsibilities as a Public Servant.”

In the past, the court has ruled that civil servants are not protected as much as whistleblowers if they speak or disclose confidential matters that were part of their job. But Monday’s opinion said the coach was not acting like a public servant when he prayed on the field.

Gorsuch said the school worker’s prayers only violate the ban on “establishing a religion” if students are required to participate in or listen to a religious message. He rejected earlier notions that schools were violating the Constitution whenever they appeared to “endorse” a religion.

“Such a rule would be a sure sign that our founding clause jurisprudence has gone off the rails,” he wrote. “In the name of protecting religious freedom, the county requires us to suppress it.” Passing such a rule could require schools to “fire teachers for silently praying at lunchtime, wearing a yarmulke to school, or doing midday prayers during their pre-workout break,” he said.

Notre Dame law professor Richard G. Garnett praised the court’s opinion and said it would bring clarity to the law.

“The article about the establishment is connected with the intricacies of the state and religious authorities,” he said. “It does not require censorship of private religious expression.”

Daniel Mach, a lawyer for the ACLU, called the decision a blow to religious freedom.

“For school officials, it is essentially a compulsion to pray with students while on duty,” he said. “Today’s decision ignores this basic principle and tramples on the religious freedom of students who may not share the preferred faith of their coaches and teachers.”

The ruling overturns a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which agreed with the school district that allowing it to pray in public could violate the prohibition on establishing religion.

“Kennedy spoke like a public servant as he knelt and prayed on the 50-yard line immediately after games, in full view of students and parents,” 9th Circuit Judge Milan Smith said. In his view, schools can regulate or restrict what government employees say at work, even if they are free to speak in their free time.

Last week, a court ruled that parents in Maine who applied for public tuition assistance ordered their children to be sent to a religious school. The court stated that since the state subsidizes education in other private schools, it cannot exclude religious schools.

In both rulings, the court’s six Conservatives were in the majority and three Liberals were in dissent.