HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) — The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a Bremerton, Washington high school football coach, who lost his job after defying school system requests to stop praying on the 50-yard line after games.
The high court’s 6-3 ruling was written by Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan dissented from the opinion.
The court said, “The Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal; the Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression.”
The case deals with First Amendment protections of personal religious expression and the school system’s fears of being seen as endorsing a religion, which deals with the Constitution’s “Establishment Clause.” There are also questions about the rights of school employees vs. the duty of that employee not to coerce students, particularly on religious matters.
The majority said he was offering a “quiet prayer of thanks,” while the school system expressed concern about the visibility of the prayer at mid-field.
In the majority opinion, Gorsuch wrote, “He offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied. Still, the Bremerton school district disciplined him anyway. It did so because it thought anything less could lead a reasonable observer to conclude (mistakenly) that it endorsed Mr. Kennedy’s religious beliefs. That reasoning was misguided. 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. The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.”
The majority granted summary judgment for Kennedy in his case against the school system.
Sotomayor, in her dissent, summed up the case differently.
“This case is about whether a public school must permit a school official to kneel, bow his head, and say a prayer at the center of a school event. The constitution does not authorize, let alone require, public schools to embrace this conduct.”
Sotomayor argued the majority got it wrong and failed to recognize court precedent on religious expression cases.
“The Court now 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 wrote.
Sotomayor also said Kennedy’s role as a coach and authority figure was not properly considered by the majority.
“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 wrote.
The court record says the coach had been praying at midfield after games for years, but it got attention in 2015 after an opposing coach praised the practice to Bremerton High School’s principal. The system warned him that a school employee couldn’t be seen endorsing a religion, and Kennedy agreed not to ask other students to pray. He also agreed not to pray right after the game, but he refused to stop the practice and his story drew national attention, with crowds of supporters rushing the field to pray after one game.
His contract ultimately wasn’t renewed and he sued.
The high court disagreed on whether it was a private expression, given he was on duty.
As for reaction from the Republican U.S. Senate candidate Katie Britt said, “This is great news and a huge win for religious liberty across America. The Court did the correct thing in standing up for our First Amendment rights to exercise our faith and speak freely. Coaches, players, and attendees at athletic events should be 100% free to pray as they so personally choose. In the Senate, I’ll always fight for Alabamians’ religious liberties and our values.”
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, Dr. Will Boyd, a pastor, told News 19:
“The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives our nation two very specific directives regarding religion: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ In other words, the letter and spirit of our constitution call for government – and its representatives – not to favor one religion over another or inhibit religious practices.
One could argue that today’s court ruling violates the first directive under the guise of the second by endorsing a public school coach’s public post-game prayer—if the coach is regarded as an agent of the State as an authority figure representing the school system. If this was the case, then his actions were unconstitutional.
On the other hand, if the coach invited players, coaches, athletic directors, and event attendees to join him as he prayed and gave an inspirational message that was outside of mandatory school activities, I side with The Court.
This case has its complexities.
Was the coach acting as an agent of the government or was he merely a life-coach who was providing event attendees a pep talk and prayer?
Can I answer these questions in my position as an “armchair Justice”?
As a pastor and bishop, my life’s mission is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. My daily desire is to win as many souls to the kingdom of God as possible. I am fully committed to this.
But as a U.S. Senator, who is a member of Congress, I believe it would be unconstitutional for me to compel constituents or any other American citizen to attend a house of worship or coerce either to hear a public prayer or sermon.
While I understand the original intent of “separation of church and state,” I also appreciate the concepts – freedom from religion and the protection of religious practices. These concepts, which are sacred to our nation’s founding, make our country great.
When a government or its agents violate either of the aforementioned constitutional ideals, it endangers our ability to be a people who enjoy ‘liberty and justice for all.’”Will Boyd
Huntsville City Schools spokesman Craig Williams said the court’s decision was under review.
“Huntsville City Schools is closely following this morning’s decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. The district’s legal counsel will thoroughly review this ruling in addition to existing policies and make any adjustments accordingly.”
Madison County Schools spokesman Carter Watkins also said the decision was being reviewed by system officials.
“The Madison County School System is aware of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling released Monday morning,” he said “We will review our policy manual and recommend any possible revisions to the Madison County Board of Education if needed.”