Decision overturns the oft-reversed 9th Circuit Court of Appeals
The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on June 27 that a school district in Washington state violated First Amendment religious freedom protections when it fired high school football coach Joseph Kennedy for leading personal prayers at the 50-yard line after games.
The decision is regarded as a victory for religious freedom.
In the case, the high court held that the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal.
The court found that the U.S. Constitution neither requires nor allows governments to suppress such religious expression.
Coach Joseph “Joe” Kennedy, who no longer works for the taxpayer-funded Bremerton School District in Washington state, claimed his rights were violated when the district forbade him from praying in view of the public after games.
The school district argued that when Kennedy prayed midfield after games, he was viewed by onlookers as a coach who was serving as a mentor and role model.
In this theory of the case, Kennedy was acting as a government employee at that moment, which would mean that he was engaging in speech that constituted government speech that isn’t protected by the First Amendment.
But the majority of Supreme Court justices disagreed with the school district in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (court file 21-418), an appeal from the frequently overturned U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion (here and below) for the court. All six conservative justices, including Gorsuch, ruled in favor of Kennedy; all three liberal justices ruled against him. Oral argument was heard April 25.
Gorsuch noted that Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach in the Bremerton School District “because he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet prayer of thanks” during a period “when school employees were free to speak with a friend, call for a reservation at a restaurant, check email, or attend to other personal matters.”
In other words, Kennedy offered “his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied.”