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Supreme Court Sides With Praying Coach Joseph Kennedy

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The Supreme Court ruled  in a 6-3 decision that a school district violated the First Amendment rights of a coach who was fired for praying on football fields in Kennedy  v. Bremerton School District. 

Football Coach Joseph Kennedy prayed on football fields after games in October 2015. A parent of a student who was an atheist complained.  The school district asked Kennedy to stop. Kennedy refused and subsequently lost his job. The question before the court was whether his constitutional rights were violated. 

The court ruled that the facts were clear.

“Here, no one questions that Mr. Kennedy seeks to engage in a sincerely motivated religious exercise involving giving “thanks through prayer” briefly “on the playing field” at the conclusion of each game he coaches. The contested exercise here does not involve leading prayers with the team; the District disciplined Mr. Kennedy only for his decision to persist in praying quietly without his students after three games in October 2015. In forbidding Mr. Kennedy’s brief prayer, the District’s challenged policies were neither neutral nor generally applicable. By its own admission, the District sought to restrict Mr. Kennedy’s actions at least in part because of their religious character. Prohibiting a religious practice was thus the District’s unquestioned “object.” The District explained that it could not allow an on-duty employee to engage in religious conduct even though it allowed other on-duty employees to engage in personal secular conduct. The District’s performance evaluation after the 2015 football season also advised against rehiring Mr. Kennedy on the ground that he failed to supervise student-athletes after games, but any sort of postgame supervisory requirement was not applied in an evenhanded way. The District thus conceded that its policies were neither neutral nor generally applicable,” reads the court’s decision. 

“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic. Here, 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,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in the majority opinion.

“Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued in the dissenting opinion, where she was joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan. All three were appointed by democratic presidents. 

This is the latest conservative win on the Supreme Court. Last week the court ruled in favor of the right to carry a firearm, and overruled the constitutional right to abortion. 

“I’m still trying to process it,” Kennedy told the Kitsap Sun. “I haven’t stopped smiling once and it feels like my whole soul is vibrating. It’s awesome, it hasn’t settled in, but it’s awesome.” 

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Washington filed a Supreme Court amicus brief in the case arguing that Coach Kennedy’s First Amendment rights were not violated. 

“This decision is deeply disappointing and undermines the religious liberty of public school students.  As the Supreme Court recognized over 60 years ago, it’s inherently coercive for school officials to pray with students while on duty.  Today’s ruling ignores that basic principle and tramples the religious freedom of students who may not share the preferred faith of their coaches and teachers,” said Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. 

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