WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Monday for a former high school football coach whose prayers at the 50-yard line drew crowds and controversy, declaring his public prayers were protected as free speech.
The 6-3 decision is a symbolic victory for those who seek a larger role for prayers and religion in the public schools.
The court stressed that Coach Joe Kennedy’s prayers began as private and personal expression and were not official acts of promoting religion at school.
Writing for the majority, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said, “Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the 1st 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. The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike. “
What began with the coach kneeling by himself on the 50-yard line became a highly publicized event in 2015 that drew a crowd of players and spectators on to the field at the end of games.
Kennedy was an assistant coach on a yearly contract at the Bremerton High School in Washington when he began to pray at the end of games. School officials warned him against continuing the prayers because they had become a public event. They said his prayers at schools could be seen as violating the Constitution’s ban on an “establishment of religion.”
Kennedy said he would “fight” the decision and took his case to the local media. He was suspended when he refused to follow the district’s guidance, and he was not rehired for the next year.
With the help of the Texas-based First Liberty Institute, he filed a suit against the school district contesting his dismissal.
The 1st Amendment protects the freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion while prohibiting an “establishment of religion,” and all three clauses were at the issue in the case of Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District.
While Kennedy argued that banning his prayers violated his right to free speech, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the school district that allowing his public prayers could violate the ban on an establishment of religion.
“Kennedy spoke as a public employee when he kneeled and prayed on the 50-yard line immediately after games while in view of students and parents,” said Judge Milan Smith for the 9th Circuit. He noted that judges have said schools may regulate or restrict what public employees say on the job, even while they are free to speak as they wish on their own time.