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Supreme Court rules in favor of high school football coach fired for praying on field

Coach Joseph Kennedy
by WorldTribune Staff, June 28, 2022

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a Washington state high school football coach had a right to pray on the field immediately after games.

Joseph Kennedy was fired as Bremerton High School football coach for holding a private prayer on the 50-yard-line after games. Although students occasionally gathered around Kennedy, the coach said he never invited their participation.

After the last game of the 2015 season, school officials said the prayer, which Kennedy had been conducting at midfield after each game for seven years, violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which bars governments from establishing a state religion. The district offered to allow Kennedy to pray in an off-field press box or “an athletic facility,” but banned his praying on the field.

The issues before the Supreme Court on Monday were whether a public school employee praying alone but in view of students was engaging in unprotected "government speech," and if it is not government speech, does it still pose a problem under the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the answer to both questions is no.

"Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. And the only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisal rested on a mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress," Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the Court's opinion. "Religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination."

The school district's allegation that Kennedy's prayer was in violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause "was misguided," the majority opinion said on Monday. "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."

Gorsuch stated that not just the Constitution, but "the best of our traditions" call for "mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike."

The Court's ruling also stated that there is a distinct reason for why speech like Kennedy's is protected by both the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses.

"That the First Amendment doubly protects religious speech is no accident. It is a natural outgrowth of the framers’ distrust of government attempts to regulate religion and suppress dissent," Gorsuch wrote.

The Court explained why Kennedy's prayer is not government speech, even though he was a government employee. The opinion stated that his words were not "pursuant to a government policy," he was not "seeking to convey a government-created message," and he was not acting in the normal scope of his duties because the game was over, he was not providing instruction or game strategy, and that he prayed at a time when he was free to do other things like "attend briefly to personal matters."

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