WASHINGTON (CN) — Public school officials in Washington State who tried to prevent a football coach from leading prayers on the 50-yard line after games violated the First Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on Monday.
Writing for the conservative supermajority, Justice Neil Gorsuch said that school board in Bremerton, just outside Seattle, tried to punish coach Joseph Kennedy for his prayer because of a “mistaken view” that it was supposed to suppress religion.
“The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination,” Gorsuch wrote.
In yet another ruling split on ideological lines, Justice Sonia Sotomayor scolded in a dissent joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Kagan that the court has put one person’s religious interests above society’s interest in protecting the separation of church and state.
“Today’s decision is particularly misguided because it elevates the religious rights of a school official, who voluntarily accepted public employment and the limits that public employment entails, over those of his students, who are required to attend school and who this Court has long recognized are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection,” the Obama appointee wrote. “In doing so, the Court sets us further down a perilous path in forcing States to entangle themselves with religion, with all of our rights hanging in the balance. As much as the Court protests otherwise, today’s decision is no victory for religious liberty.”
Coach Kennedy’s post-game prayers at the 50-yard line started off as a solitary ritual, but the Bremerton school board cracked down as players, local lawmakers and the media began to take notice and the prayers also evolved into motivational speeches with religious content.
Kennedy initially complied with the board's request that he stop including students in his prayers, and that the prayers no longer coincide with school activities, but the school superintendent put Kennedy on paid administrative leave when he began ignoring those instructions.
The coach's bid for injunctive relief went all the Supreme Court in 2019 but was unsuccessful. He found relief Monday on the merits, however, after the conservative justices appeared primed in oral arguments to expand prayer at public schools.
“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,” Gorsuch wrote for the majority this morning.
Kennedy’s attorney, Paul Clement with Kirkland & Ellis, did not respond to requests for comment. He had argued before the court that the punishment of his client on leave for praying violated the free speech and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment.
As the school district saw it, however, Kennedy’s rights cannot get priority over the rights of the students. Richard Katskee, the attorney for Bremerton who is with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said some students felt pressured to pray with Kennedy fearing they wouldn’t get fair playing time if they didn’t.
Gorsuch said the Free Exercise Clause protects the right to hold religious beliefs both in private and in public.
“The Clause protects not only the right to harbor religious beliefs inwardly and secretly,” Gorsuch wrote. “It does perhaps its most important work by protecting the ability of those who hold religious beliefs of all kinds to live out their faiths in daily life through ‘the performance of (or abstention from) physical acts.’” (Parentheses in original.)
The majority claims the issue before them does not involve Kennedy leading prayers with students and instead only prayers after three games in October of 2015. Gorsuch wrote that Kennedy engaged in these prayers during the post-game period when coaches can greet family and express other forms of free speech, so his prayer should be classified as private speech and not a part of the duties of his government job.