A divided US Supreme Court ruled in favor of a high school football coach who lost his job for conducting post-game prayers on the 50-yard line in a decision that buttresses religious rights and reduces the authority of public-school officials over their teachers and staff.
Voting 6-3, the court said Bremerton School District in Washington state violated Joseph Kennedy’s constitutional rights by punishing him after he repeatedly took a knee alongside his players. The ruling adds to a line of recent Supreme Court decisions relaxing the separation of church and state.
“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,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the court.
The court’s three liberals — Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — dissented. Sotomayor said for the group that the ruling “does a disservice to schools and the young citizens they serve, as well as to our nation’s longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state.”
The case was one of four religious-rights appeals the court heard during its nine-month term. Earlier this month, the court strengthened the rights of parents to use public funds to send their children to religious schools. The court earlier ruled that ministers can play an active role in the execution chamber and that a Christian group should have been allowed to fly its flag over Boston’s City Hall, like other organizations.
The school district said Kennedy defied instructions to stop praying alongside his players and made media appearances that turned his prayers into spectacles. The district said that some students felt pressured into taking part and that it offered alternative, less public places to pray after games.
Kennedy contended he was punished for private religious expression that wasn’t tied to his official duties.
Years of Prayers
Kennedy, who describes himself as a devout Christian, had been praying at midfield for seven years when the controversy erupted in 2015. Throughout much of that time, he delivered prayers to his players, both on the field and in the locker room, according to the district. School officials said they didn’t learn of the practice until an opposing coach told the Bremerton principal that Kennedy had invited the coach and his players to join.
Kennedy said he agreed to stop leading prayers with his players but wanted to continue taking a knee at midfield after games. The school eventually put Kennedy on paid administrative leave and then opted not to renew his contract as an assistant varsity coach at the end of the year.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that the Constitution forbids teacher-led prayer in public schools. The case didn’t directly challenge that precedent.
At the Supreme Court the school district contended it has broad power to control its own events, protect the rights of non-praying students and ensure it doesn’t get sued for sponsoring prayer.
In rejecting Kennedy’s First Amendment claims, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Seattle-area school district would have been violating the constitutional separation of church and state had it allowed the prayers to continue.
The case is Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, 21-418.
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