The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on Monday that former Washington state high school football coach Joseph Kennedy had a right to pray on the field following games.
Kennedy claimed that the Bremerton School District violated his religious freedom by telling him he could not pray publicly after the games. The school district argued that they were trying to avoid the appearance that they were endorsing a religious point of view.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, “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.”
In a dissent joined by the two other liberal justices, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the court “consistently has recognized that school officials leading prayer is constitutionally impermissible” and said the ruling did a “disservice” to schools, students and “the nation’s longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state.”
Kennedy became an assistant coach in 2008 and later began to offer a prayer after each game for coaches and players. The school district eventually told him that he would have to find a private location to pray. However, Kennedy declined and continued to pray. The district proceeded to give him a poor performance evaluation and then declined to offer him a renewal on his contract.