Bloomberg Law
June 27, 2022, 4:54 PM

Supreme Court Backs Coach Who Lost Job Over Midfield Prayers (3)

Greg Stohr
Greg Stohr
Bloomberg News

A divided US Supreme Court ruled in favor of a high school football coach who lost his job for conducting post-game prayers on the 50-yard line in a decision that buttresses religious rights and reduces the authority of public schools over their teachers and staff.

Voting 6-3, the court said Bremerton School District in Washington state violated Joseph Kennedy’s constitutional religion and speech rights by punishing him after he repeatedly took a knee, often alongside his players. The ruling adds to a line of recent Supreme Court decisions relaxing the separation of church and state.

“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,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the court. “The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”

Liberal Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented. Writing for the group, Sotomayor said the ruling “elevates one individual’s interest in personal religious exercise, in the exact time and place of that individual’s choosing, over society’s interest in protecting the separation between church and state, eroding the protections for religious liberty for all.”

The case was one of four religious-rights victories during the court’s nine-month term. Last week, the court strengthened the rights of parents to use public funds to send their children to religious schools. The court earlier ruled that ministers can play an active role in the execution chamber and that a Christian group should have been allowed to fly its flag over Boston’s City Hall, like other organizations.

The school district said Kennedy defied instructions to stop praying alongside his players and made media appearances that turned his prayers into spectacles. The district said that some students felt pressured into taking part and that it offered alternative, less public places to pray after games.

Kennedy contended he was punished for private religious expression that wasn’t tied to his official duties.

Years of Prayers

Kennedy, who describes himself as a devout Christian, had been praying at midfield for seven years when the controversy erupted in 2015. Throughout much of that time, he delivered prayers to his players, both on the field and in the locker room, according to the district. School officials said they didn’t learn of the practice until an opposing coach told the Bremerton principal that Kennedy had invited the coach and his players to join.

Kennedy said he agreed to stop leading prayers with his players but wanted to continue taking a knee at midfield after games. The school eventually put Kennedy on paid administrative leave and then opted not to renew his contract as an assistant varsity coach at the end of the year.

Gorsuch said the case was about only three “quiet” 2015 prayers the school district cited when it issued the suspension. Gorsuch said that no student joined those prayers and that Kennedy in those moments was acting as a private citizen, not a school employee or coach.

“What matters is whether Mr. Kennedy offered his prayers while acting within the scope of his duties as a coach,” Gorsuch wrote. “And taken together, both the substance of Mr. Kennedy’s speech and the circumstances surrounding it point to the conclusion that he did not.”

Sotomayor criticized the majority for ignoring the history of Kennedy’s post-field prayers. Her dissent included three photos showing Kennedy surrounded by players, including one with the coach holding a helmet in the air.

“To the degree the court portrays petitioner Joseph Kennedy’s prayers as private and quiet, it misconstrues the facts,” Sotomayor wrote. “The record reveals that Kennedy had a longstanding practice of conducting demonstrative prayers on the 50-yard line of the football field.”

Divided Reaction

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represented the school district, blasted the ruling.

“Today, the court continued its assault on church-state separation, by falsely describing coercive prayer as ‘personal’ and stopping public schools from protecting their students’ religious freedom,” Rachel Laser, the group’s president, said in an emailed statement.

But religious-rights advocates hailed the decision.

The ruling “confirms that the First Amendment’s rule against establishments of religion is not an excuse for censoring religious expression,” said Richard Garnett, a professor at Notre Dame Law School. “Our Constitution rightly distinguishes between church and state, but that distinction does not require governments to exclude religious expression from public life.”

The Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that the Constitution forbids teacher-led prayer in public schools. The case didn’t directly challenge that precedent.

In rejecting Kennedy’s First Amendment claims, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Seattle-area school district would have been violating the constitutional separation of church and state had it allowed the prayers to continue.

The case is Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, 21-418.

(Updates with additional opinion excerpts starting in third paragraph, reaction starting in 14th.)

To contact the reporter on this story:
Greg Stohr in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Elizabeth Wasserman at

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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