The Supreme Court handed a major victory to an ex-coach of a Washington high school football team, Joe Kennedy, who was fired for praying after a game. The Court ruled that the high school had violated the coach’s First Amendment rights.
The question was whether a public school employee praying aloud in front of high-school students constituted unprotected “government speech,” and if not, did it nonetheless violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court found that the prayer did not violate any of these regulations, allowing the coach to continue praying if he wishes.
“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,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the Court’s opinion. “Religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”
From 2008 until 2015, Joe Kennedy served as the junior varsity’s head coach and the varsity’s assistant coach for the Bremerton School District in Washington. He started the practice of saying a post-game prayer. He did it alone at first, but students later began to join him.
This developed into motivational speeches with an element of religion, according to court filings. The principal was alerted to it by an opposition coach, and the school system ordered Kennedy to stop. He did obey for some time before informing the school that he planned to resume the practice.
This entire ordeal received media attention. Security concerns began to rise as people gathered in the field to show their support.
The school asked Kennedy to stop the practice or to pray when no one else was present, but he declined and continued with his routine. The school has given Kennedy a leave of absence as a result of his persistent prayers.
The school district claimed that allowing Kennedy, an employee, to pray on the field during a school game would be against the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which preserves the separation of state and church.
“That reasoning was misguided,” the majority opinion said. “Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor.”
Despite the fact that Kennedy worked for the government, the Court outlined why his prayer was not an official speech. The Court’s opinion is that the coach’s words weren’t “pursuant to a government policy,” and he was not “seeking to convey a government-created message.” Since the game was over, he wasn’t giving any instruction to the players, although he could have done other stuff that was not game-related. The Court saw the prayers as something that the coach did to “attend briefly to personal matters.”