On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the actions of high school football coach Joseph Kennedy, who sought to kneel and pray on the field after games, were protected by the U.S. Constitution. (See Making a Choice for the backstory.) Opponents say the decision could open the door to “much more coercive prayer” in public schools—while proponents rejoice.
The court ruled 6-3 in favor of the coach. The court’s conservative justices made up the majority. The case was the latest in a line of rulings for religious plaintiffs. (Read a recent article about another Supreme Court decision in Ruling for Maine’s Religious Schools.)
The case forced the justices to wrestle with how to balance the religious and free speech rights of teachers and coaches with the rights of students not to feel pressured into participating in religious practices.
Liberal justices say there was evidence that the Bremerton High School coach’s prayers at the 50-yard-line had a strongarm effect on students and allowed Kennedy to incorporate his “personal religious beliefs into a school event.”
Dissenting Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the decision “sets us further down a perilous path in forcing states to entangle themselves with religion.”
But the justices in the majority emphasized that the coach’s prayer came after the game was over and at a time when he wasn’t responsible for students and was free to do other things.
“The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority.
Gorsuch noted that the coach “prayed during a period when school employees were free to speak with a friend, call for a reservation at a restaurant, check email, or attend to other personal matters” and “while his students were otherwise occupied.”
It would be wrong to treat everything public school teachers and coaches say and do as speech subject to government control, he wrote.
He closed by saying, “Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic—whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head.”
In dissent, Sotomayor wrote Monday that players “recognize that gaining the coach’s approval may pay dividends small and large, from extra playing time to a stronger letter of recommendation to additional support in college athletic recruiting.” She said “some students reported joining Kennedy’s prayer because they felt social pressure to follow their coach and teammates.”
Sotomayor was joined in her dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Elena Kagan.
Lawyers for the school district noted that Kennedy has moved to Florida and said it was unclear if he truly intends to move back across the country to Washington state, where he had previously been a football coach at Bremerton High School.
An article in the July/August issue of WORLDteen asks, “Can Christian coaches and teachers really leave their faith outside when they walk through the school doors? And should they have to?” For now, it seems the Supreme Court’s answer is “no.” It is valid to ask the same question of followers of other religions as well. This action by the court will likewise protect faith expressions around events in public school settings for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and more.
Kennedy, a Christian, says, “All I’ve ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys. . . . I thank God for answering our prayers and sustaining my family through this long battle.”
(Joe Kennedy, a former assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington, poses for a photo March 9, 2022, at the school’s football field. AP/Ted S. Warren)