The Supreme Court of the U.S. ruled on June 27 that a public school football coach can pray at midfield following a football game.
In the 6-3 decision, Justice Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion, which was joined by Justices Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Barrett and Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh did not join the majority on one part, while Thomas and Alito both filed concurring opinions.
Justice Sotomayor wrote the dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan.
Oral arguments for Kennedy v. Bremerton School District were heard in late April – a case involving a former Bremerton High School (Washington) football coach, Joseph Kennedy, whose contract wasn’t renewed after he persisted in praying at the 50-yard-line of football fields after BHS games, a practice that often included players.
Kennedy’s lawyers asserted that when he “knelt after football games to say a brief, quiet prayer, he engaged in his own private religious speech, not government speech. His personal religious exercise was doubly protected under the Free Speech Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.”
Such acts were private religious acts that were “not part of his official duties as a BHS football coach,” the coach’s lawyers stated. “When it comes to private religious speech, whether by students, teachers, or coaches, the government does not endorse what it merely allows on school grounds.”
A majority of justices agreed, stating in a summary of its ruling that “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.”
“When Mr. Kennedy uttered the three prayers that resulted in his suspension, he was not engaged in speech ‘ordinarily within the scope’ of his duties as a coach,” the majority said. “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.”
Justice Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion asserted that the majority focused “almost exclusive attention” on the Free Exercise Clause to the neglect of the Establishment Clause. As a result, the court diverged from the precedent set in the 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision.
The Kennedy ruling also ignored the larger history of petitioner’s “longstanding practice of conducting demonstrative prayers on the 50-yard line of the football field” in which he “invited others to join his prayers and for years led student athletes in prayer at the same time and location,” Sotomayor noted. “As the majority tells it, Kennedy, a coach for the District’s football program, ‘lost his job’ for ‘pray[ing] quietly while his students were otherwise occupied.’ … The record before us, however, tells a different story.”
Here are reactions and responses from several faith leaders and organizations:
“Today’s Supreme Court ruling undermines religious freedom in public schools by holding that school officials must accommodate a public school teacher’s religious exercise at a school event. The decision flies in the face of decades of decisions that have allowed students to enjoy their religious freedom rights without fear of school-sponsored religious practices,” said Holly Hollman, general counsel and associate executive director at BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty). “This Court pays lip service to religious freedom but throws out any concern about avoiding government pressure on students.”
Among the nearly three dozen amicus curiae briefs filed in the case was a brief submitted by BJC, along with the American Jewish Committee, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the General Synod of the United Church of Christ.
BJC also created a resource page for the case, including a summary position of BJC, as well as links to its amici curiae brief, two podcast episodes and several articles.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State tweeted a brief statement following the ruling: “#SCOTUS effectively just gutted decades of precedent by stripping away public school students’ fundamental religious freedom rights. No public school student should be pressured to pray in school, but the Supreme Court just rejected that basic protection.”
AU President and CEO Rachel Laser said: “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. It is no coincidence that the erosion of the line between church and state has come alongside devastating losses on so many of the rights we cherish. As that line has blurred, public education, reproductive rights, civil rights and more have come under attack.”
“Public schools should be open and welcoming to all, regardless of background or belief. And since 1962, the Supreme Court has consistently recognized that school prayer is coercive, undermining the religious freedom rights of students who feel pressured to participate. Yet today’s decision dismantles decades of progress,” said Katy Joseph, director of policy and advocacy at Interfaith Alliance. “No student should ever be made to feel excluded — whether in the classroom or on the football field — because they don’t share the religious beliefs of their coaches, teachers, or fellow students.”
A statement from the American Jewish Congress expressed outage at the ruling, noting that it goes against decades of precedent and “blurs a concrete line between the separation of Church and State.” The AJC statement noted that Jews “are familiar with having religious beliefs forced upon our communities and the consequences that have gravely unfolded as a result,” emphasized that “the separation between religion and law cannot and should not be blurred,” and asked Congress to take steps “to remedy this pattern of historic misjudgments.”
Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission,” tweeted that SCOTUS “rightly decided” the Kennedy case, calling it “a worthy 6-3 decision.”
“I say let anyone and everyone pray anywhere and anytime. There should be no restrictions on this act of free speech for any person,” tweeted Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Theological Seminary, linking to a USA Today article about the ruling.
An amici curiae brief filed by the ERLC and several faith-based organizations said the lower court ruling “demonstrates the inherent bias against religion,” asserting that “Coach Kennedy’s genuflection at the 50-yard line was private conduct, and others joining the coach voluntarily and without school encouragement did not convert it into action attributable to the school.”
A news release by Becket Law, which filed the amicus curiae brief for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, quoted Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, chairman of the USCCB Committee for Religious Liberty, as stating: “We must always remember the importance of prayer in American life. The freedom to pray is essential to the moral duty all people possess toward the truth. The Court’s decision to prevent the forced expulsion of voluntary prayer from public life is a major victory for all Americans who wish to discover and live the truth.”