The Supreme Court ruled that a school district in Washington was wrong to fire a football coach for quietly praying on the field after games.
It began in 2008 when Bremerton High School football coach Joseph Kennedy started a tradition of kneeling down to pray after football games.
What started as a personal and private act soon caught the attention of students that began to join him kneeling on the field. In 2015, school officials took notice after a complaint from the opposing team. Kennedy was asked to cease the public prayer after the games, to which he refused. Soon after Kennedy was placed on administrative leave.
The non-profit legal organization First Liberty stood behind him and took up the case in 2016. They lost multiple times in district court and the Supreme Court denied the request in 2019. Following the denial, however, four Justices expressed concern about how the public school district handled First Amendment rights for public school teachers.
The Supreme Court then sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton who sided with the school district once again. The Supreme Court finally agreed to hear the case in February 2022.
“People of faith or no faith, everybody has the same rights and that is what the Constitution is all about,” Kennedy said. “It’s rights for all Americans.”
This cased forced the court to wrestle with how to balance the religious rights and freedoms of public school teachers and coaches along with the freedoms of students not to be pressured to participate in religious practices.
The siding justices emphasized how the prayer took place after the game when the coach was no longer responsible for the players and was free to do as he pleased.
Justice Neil Gorsuch also added that Kennedy “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.”
Kennedy also mentioned that any students that expressed discomfort in joining the practice were given full freedom to skip the prayers and no one on the team was treated differently by participating (or not participating) in the short time of prayer.
On Monday morning in a 6-3 decision, the Court sided with Kennedy in a decision that further respects the Constitutional rights of all public-school teachers and coaches to engage in a brief, personal prayer in public.
This put an end to a conflict that had been brewing since early 2015.
“This is a tremendous victory for Coach Kennedy and religious liberty for all Americans,” said Kelly Shackelford, President, CEO, and Chief Counsel for First Liberty. “Our Constitution protects the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired. We are grateful that the Supreme Court recognized what the Constitution and law have always said – Americans are free to live out their faith in public.”