The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a former high school football coach in Bremerton, who prayed with his players and other students on the field, could legally do so under his First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.
The high court ruled 6-3 Monday in Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District along ideological lines for Joseph Kennedy, a former part-time assistant coach. Every Republican-appointed justice sided with Kennedy; every Democratic-appointed justice dissented.
"Joseph Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach because he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet prayer of thanks," Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority. "The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike."
The decision marks a substantial ruling in the decades-old argument over prayer in public schools. In weighing the religious rights of school officials with the rights of students to not feel pressured to participate in religious practices, the court came down firmly on Kennedy's side.
Students, Gorsuch wrote, were not required to participate in Kennedy's prayer sessions, and the prayers were not publicly broadcast.
In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the Constitution neither requires nor authorizes public schools to allow officials to pray "at the center of a school event."
She cited the same sections of the Bill of Rights as the majority, writing that they protected students who have a right to education free from government-exercised religion.
"Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections
for the religious liberty of students and their parents," Sotomayor wrote.
The court's decision, she wrote, "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."
Kennedy, who served in the Marine Corps for nearly two decades, started coaching at the school in 2008 and initially prayed alone on the 50-yard line at the end of games. But students and players soon joined him and he began giving short talks with religious references.
The district learned of his prayers and talks and asked him to stop. Initially, he said he would comply and stopped leading students in prayer in the locker room and on the field. But he wanted to continue praying on the field himself, with students free to join if they wished.
"Some students reported joining Kennedy's prayer because they felt social pressure to follow their coach and teammates," Sotomayor wrote.
The district had said Kennedy was free to pray on the 50-yard line if it didn't interfere with his official duties, or when he was off duty, but doing so immediately after a game ended could be seen as the school endorsing religion.
"This is just so awesome," Kennedy said Monday, in a prepared statement. "All I've ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys."
Kennedy moved to Florida two years ago to help care for an ailing family member, but previously said if he won the case he will be on "the very first flight back."
Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty, a nationwide legal organization focused on religious liberty, which represented Kennedy, said it was a "tremendous victory."
"Our Constitution protects the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired," Shackelford said. "American's are free to live out their faith in public."
The Bremerton School District, in a prepared statement, said it would work with its attorneys to make sure it "remains a welcoming, inclusive environment for all students, their families and our staff."
"When we learned that a district employee was leading students in prayer, we followed the law and acted to protect the religious freedom of all students and their families," the district said. "We look forward to moving past the distraction of this 7-year legal battle so that our school community can focus on what matters most: providing our children the best education possible."
Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represented the school district in court, called the decision devastating.
"This decision represents the greatest loss of religious freedom in our country in generations," she said. "This court focused only on the demands of far-right Christian extremists, robbing everyone else of their religious freedom. It ignored the religious freedom of students and families."
Taryn Darling, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Washington, which filed an amicus brief in the case supporting the school district, said the decision erodes protections for public school students to "learn and grow free of coercion."
"Kitsap County is a religiously diverse community and students reported they felt coerced to pray," Darling said in a prepared statement. "This decision strains the separation of church and state — a bedrock principle of our democracy — and potentially harms our youth."