The hits keep coming: Supreme Court rules in favor of fired HS football coach who prayed on field

(Video Credit: Fox News)

The Supreme Court just ruled in favor of a former Washington high school football coach, stating that his First Amendment rights of freedom of religion and speech were violated when he was put on leave for praying on the field.

Joe Kennedy had prayed on the 50-yard line after every game for years and it ultimately cost him his job.

His case made it all the way to the Supreme Court and addressed the issue of whether a public school employee who was praying alone but in view of students was engaging in unprotected “government speech.” It asked if it wasn’t government speech, then did it still pose a problem under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

On Monday, the high court ruled in a 6-3 decision that the answer to those questions was a definitive “no.” Kennedy was rendered speechless over the ruling.

(Video Credit: First Liberty Institute)

“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 asserted in the court’s opinion. “Religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”

Kennedy was a junior varsity head coach and a varsity assistant coach with the Bremerton School District in Washington from 2008 to 2015. He started out by praying by himself but students eventually knelt with him after games. He claims he did not solicit them to do so.

Court documents accused the coach of morphing the prayer into motivational speeches that included religious themes. An opposing coach ratted on Kennedy to the powers-that-be. The school district told Kennedy to cease the prayers. He did for a bit but then told the school he was going to resume praying at the 50-yard line.

Suddenly, Kennedy was all over the media. The school claimed it had security concerns as he went back to praying and a number of people joined him on the field to support him.

The school district suggested to Kennedy that he pray in other locations before and after games. They also urged him to pray on the 50-yard line after everyone else had left the game. Kennedy refused to do so. After he prayed at two more games, they placed him on leave.

The reason given for doing so was that the school district felt that Kennedy’s prayers violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which protects the separation of church and state.

“That reasoning was misguided,” the majority opinion held. “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 went on to state 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.”

“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 in the opinion.

The opinion expanded on why Kennedy’s prayers are not government speech. It contended that his words were not “pursuant to a government policy,” he was not “seeking to convey a government-created message,” and he was not held responsible because the game was over. It also noted that the coach was not providing instruction or game strategy and that he prayed when he was free to do other things.

Justice Samuel Alito concurred with Gorsuch’s ruling. He commented that Kennedy prayed “while at work but during a time when a brief lull in his duties apparently gave him a few free moments to engage in private activities.”

The Court’s majority opinion also took note that Kennedy had “voluntarily discontinued the school tradition of locker-room prayers and his postgame religious talks to students.” It also added that the school district took action against him “only for his decision to persist in praying quietly without his players after three games in October 2015.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is not an originalist but a leftist in black garb, gave a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer. In it, she claimed that the majority’s opinion “misconstrues the facts” of the case.

“The record reveals that Kennedy had a longstanding practice of conducting demonstrative prayers on the 50-yard line of the football field,” Sotomayor remarked in her opinion. “Kennedy consistently invited others to join his prayers and for years led student-athletes in prayer at the same time and location. The court ignores this history.”

Sotomayor wrote that the court “consistently has recognized that school officials leading prayer is constitutionally impermissible” and proclaimed the ruling did a “disservice” to schools, students, and “the nation’s longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state.”

“Today’s decision is particularly misguided because it elevates the religious rights of a school official, who voluntarily accepted public employment and the limits that public employment entails, over those of his students, who are required to attend school and who this court has long recognized are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection,” she continued. “In doing so, the court sets us further down a perilous path in forcing States to entangle themselves with religion, with all of our rights hanging in the balance.”

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