High School Football Coach Scores Big Win At Supreme Court

The Supreme Court handed a big win to a former Washington high school football coach who lost his job over reciting a prayer on the 50-yard line after games.

At issue was whether a public school employee praying alone but in view of students was engaging in unprotected “government speech,” and if it is not government speech, does it still pose a problem under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

The Supreme Court ruled Monday in a 6-3 decision that the answer to both questions is no.

“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.”

Joe Kennedy was a junior varsity head coach and varsity assistant coach with the Bremerton School District in Washington from 2008 to 2015. He began the practice of reciting a post-game prayer by himself, but eventually students started joining him. According to court documents, this evolved into motivational speeches that included religious themes. After an opposing coach brought it to the principal’s attention, the school district told Kennedy to stop. He did, temporarily, then notified the school that he would resume the practice.

The situation garnered media attention, and when Kennedy announced that he would go back to praying on the field, it raised security concerns. When he did pray after the game, a number of people stormed the field in support.

The school district then offered to let Kennedy pray in other locations before and after games, or for him to pray on the 50-yard line after everyone else had left the premises, but he refused, insisting that he would continue his regular practice. After continuing the prayers at two more games, the school district placed Kennedy on leave.

The school district’s reasoning was that if they allowed Kennedy, their employee, to pray on the field at a school game, it would violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which protects separation of church and state.

“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. ”

Gorsuch stated that not just the Constitution, but “the best of our traditions” call for “mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.”

The Court’s ruling also stated that there is a distinct reason for why speech like Kennedy’s is protected by both the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses.

“That the First Amendment doubly protects religious speech is no accident. It is a natural outgrowth of the framers’ distrust of government attempts to regulate religion and suppress dissent,” Gorsuch wrote.

The Court explained why Kennedy’s prayer is not government speech, even though he was a government employee. The opinion stated that his words were not “pursuant to a government policy,” he was not “seeking to convey a government-created message,” and he was not acting in the normal scope of his duties because  the game was over, he was not providing instruction or game strategy, and that he…

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