Supreme Court Upholds Right to Public Prayer in Coach Kennedy Case
In the latest major decision to come down from the U.S. Supreme Court in what has become a historic month of June, the majority ruled that a high school football coach has the constitutional right to pray in public view after games.
In a 6-3 ruling released Monday and authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the court held in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District that “a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance, based on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”
Gorsuch’s majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts as well as Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, and Brett Kavanaugh (except as to Part III–B). Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
The case revolved around assistant high school football coach Joe Kennedy, a Marine Corps veteran who started coaching for the Bremerton High School football team in Bremerton, Wash. in 2008. Kennedy, a devout Christian, began kneeling at the 50-yard line at the conclusion of games to offer a short prayer of thanksgiving. His tradition went uncontested for over seven years, but the Bremerton School District asked him to stop in September 2015. When Kennedy declined and continued his prayer ritual, the school district fired him. This marked the beginning of a seven-year legal battle that ended in Monday’s victory at the Supreme Court.
“This is a tremendous victory for Coach Kennedy and religious liberty for all Americans,” said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel for First Liberty, the firm that represented Kennedy. “Our Constitution protects the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired. We are grateful that the Supreme Court recognized what the Constitution and law have always said — Americans are free to live out their faith in public.”
Paul Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general and the attorney who argued Kennedy’s case before the Supreme Court, said, “After seven long years, Coach Kennedy can finally return to the place he belongs — coaching football and quietly praying by himself after the game. This is a great victory for Coach Kennedy and the First Amendment.”
“This is a historic win for religious liberty,” Katherine Beck Johnson, research fellow for Legal and Policy Studies at Family Research Council, told The Washington Stand. “The government cannot tell employees that they can’t publicly exercise their faith by praying. We applaud the Court for recognizing and protecting this basic First Amendment right.”
Arielle Del Turco, FRC’s assistant director of the Center for Religious Liberty, was also greatly encouraged by Monday’s ruling. “This is a fantastic win for religious freedom,” she told TWS. “Christians shouldn’t be required to check their faith at the door when they enter their government jobs, which is what Coach Kennedy’s school district essentially told him. By ruling that the school district violated Coach Kennedy’s free exercise of religion and free speech rights when they fired him for praying silently on school grounds, the Court resolutely affirmed the right of believers to express their faith in the public square.”
“All Coach Kennedy wanted was to be a high school football coach and honor God in the process by praying after games. Now, he can do that knowing the Constitution guarantees his right to do so,” Del Turco concluded.
After the ruling was released, Coach Kennedy expressed elation. “This is just so awesome,” he said. “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.”
Dan Hart is senior editor at The Washington Stand.