The New York Times
Coach Joseph Kennedy 62b9e7ff6b00c

Supreme Court rules that public high school coaches have the right to pray on the field after games

June 27, 2022
In a 6-3 ruling, the court said that Joseph Kennedy, an assistant football coach in Bremerton, Wash., was exercising his First Amendment rights to free speech when he prayed after a football game.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a coach at a public high school has the constitutional right to pray on the field with his players after a game.

In the 6-3 decision, the court overturned a lower court ruling and declared that Joseph Kennedy, who was an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Wash., was exercising his First Amendments right to free speech and free exercise of religion when he knelt on the field after games and prayed.

“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.”

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.”

Sotomayor 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.

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, criticized the court's decision.

"The Constitution should protect public school students from being coerced into religious activity," Pringle said. "The court’s decision here does the opposite: It ignores the real-life pressure and coercion that students will feel when school officials stage public religious observances in class or at school events."

Kennedy became a coach at the school in 2008 and initially prayed alone on the 50-yard line after games. Students and players subsequently 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.

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.

Kennedy's contract was not renewed after the 2015 season.

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