on Jun 27, 2022
at 11:24 am
The Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of a high school football coach who lost his job because of his post-game prayers at the 50-yard line. By a vote of 6-3, the justices ruled that Joseph Kennedy’s conduct was protected by the First Amendment. The court rejected the school district’s argument that allowing Kennedy’s prayers to continue would have violated the Constitution’s establishment clause, which bars the government from both establishing an official religion and preferring one religion over another.
The decision by Justice Neil Gorsuch, which was joined in full by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Amy Coney Barrett, and for the most part by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, was the second major ruling on religion and schools in less than a week. On June 21, in Carson v. Makin, the court struck down — again by a vote of 6-3 — a Maine law that banned the use of public funds for students to use at private schools that provide religious instruction.
In 2015, Kennedy had been a part-time coach at Bremerton High School, a public school in Washington state, for seven years. During that time, he would pray at midfield after each game – first alone, but later with players and even some members of the opposing team joining him. When the school district learned about Kennedy’s prayers in September 2015, it expressed disapproval, and Kennedy briefly stopped his prayers.
On Oct. 14, 2015, Kennedy notified the school district that he intended to resume his prayers at the next game. After a scene that the school district describes as chaotic, with spectators and reporters knocking down members of the band in an effort to join Kennedy at midfield, the school district told him that his prayers violated the district’s policy, and it offered him other options to pray – for example, after the crowd had left. But Kennedy continued to pray at the next two games, prompting the school district to place him on administrative leave and, eventually, decline to renew his contract for the following season.
Kennedy went to federal district court, where he argued that the school district’s actions had violated his rights under the free speech and free exercise clauses of the Constitution. The lower courts ruled for the school district, but on Monday the justices reversed that ruling. In a 32-page decision, Gorsuch explained that the government’s only real justification for its decision to fire Kennedy “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,” Gorsuch concluded, “neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”
As they did last week in Carson, the court’s three liberal justices dissented. In an opinion that was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, Justice Sonia Sotomayor complained that the Supreme Court “has consistently recognized that school officials leading prayer is constitutionally impermissible.” Monday’s ruling, she observed, “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.”
Check back soon for in-depth analysis of the opinion.
This article was originally published at Howe on the Court.