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Supreme Court Sides With High School Coach Who Prayed at 50-Yard Line

June 27, 2022 by Dan McCue
Supreme Court Sides With High School Coach Who Prayed at 50-Yard Line
Joe Kennedy, a former assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Wash., poses for a photo March 9, 2022, at the school's football field. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

WASHINGTON —  A divided U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sided with a high school football coach who claimed the public school district that employed him violated his free speech and free exercise rights by barring him from praying on the field after games.

The 6-3 ruling is the latest example of the court ruling in favor of religious plaintiffs. Earlier this month, as reported by The Well News,  the court ruled that Maine can’t exclude religious schools from a program that offers tuition aid for private education.

In this case the justices held the coach’s post game prayer was protected by the First Amendment.

“The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority.

But in a dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the majority’s decision “sets us further down a perilous path in forcing states to entangle themselves with religion.” 

The Supreme Court, she wrote “has consistently recognized that school officials leading prayer is constitutionally impermissible.”

Monday’s ruling, she said “charts a different path, yet again paying almost exclusive attention to the Free Exercise Clause’s protection for individual religious exercise while giving short shrift to the Establishment Clause’s prohibition on state establishment of religion.”

She was joined in her dissent by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

Petitioner Joseph Kennedy started coaching football at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington, and initially prayed alone at the 50 yard line. Eventually, several team members joined him.

Shortly thereafter, the prayer turned into a short, inspirational speech, which morphed again into a pre-game prayer.

School officials stepped in to try and stop the group prayer in 2015, but by then Kennedy had curtailed his prayers with students and continued to pray alone on the 50-yard line.

By then though, the coach’s activities were being followed by spectators and the general public alike, and after one game the crowd that surged onto the field to pray with coach Kennedy created a near-riot.

The district again asked Kennedy to refrain from his prayer, and when he refused to do so, it placed him on administrative leave. After that, it declined to renew his contract for the following season.

Kennedy sued the district in federal district court, where he argued that the school district’s actions had violated his rights under the free speech and free exercise clauses of the Constitution. The lower court and an apellate court both ruled for the school district.

Paul Clement, Kennedy’s attorney, said in a statement that the coach “is finally returning to the place he belongs — coaching football and quietly praying by himself after the game.”

“This is just so awesome,” Kennedy said in a statement of his own. “All I’ve ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys. I thank God for answering our prayers and sustaining my family through this long battle.”

The Bremerton School District and its attorneys at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said in a statement the decision undermines that separation required by the Constitution. 

The school district said that it had “followed the law and acted to protect the religious freedom of all students and their families” and that it would work with its attorneys to make sure the district “remains a welcoming, inclusive environment for all students, their families and our staff.”

Dan can be reached at dan@thewellnews.com and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.

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