Praying football coach wins Supreme Court victory

The Supreme Court has ruled 6-3 in favor of a Washington high school football coach whose employer fired him in 2015 for kneeling in prayer at the 50-yard line after games.

The Court ruled in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District that Coach’s rights to free speech and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment were violated by the Bremerton School District in a written majority opinion by Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch.

The court took up the case in April after former high school coach Joseph Kennedy filed a lawsuit in federal court, alleging the Bremerton School District violated his First Amendment rights.

“The Freedom of Practice and Freedom of Speech clauses of the First Amendment protect a person engaging in personal religious practice from government retaliation; the Constitution neither requires nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression,” Gorsuch wrote.

The court’s opinion ruled that the school district “erroneously” believed that by allowing Kennedy’s religious practices and observances, it would lead them to endorse his religious beliefs, the majority opinion noted. The Court ruled the coach’s dismissal unconstitutional because the Constitution establishes “mutual respect and tolerance” for religious and secular beliefs and customs.

Gorsuch further noted that Kennedy did not engage his students in prayer but rather practiced religious observance individually, leading to the conclusion that the district was intentionally prohibiting a religious practice. The ruling argued that the constitutional protections of a teacher or faculty are not removed on school property, since in this case the faculty are government employees and are “paid in part to speak on behalf of the government,” according to the decision.

“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic,” the ruling said. “Here, a government entity has sought to punish an individual for engaging in personal religious practice, based on an erroneous view that he has a duty to suppress religious practices even if it allows comparable secular speech. . The Constitution neither mandates nor condones this kind of discrimination. (RELATED: Praying Football Coach Will Sue Washington School District For Refusing To Let Him Pray)

Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh joined Gorsuch in filing the majority opinion. Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan filed a dissenting opinion.

In April, conservative justices initially argued that Kennedy had not violated the First Amendment because he was not speaking on behalf of the government.

“Perhaps most troubling in the Ninth Circuit’s opinion is language that can be taken to mean that a coach’s duty to serve as a good role model requires the coach to refrain from any manifestation of religious faith – even when the coach is clearly not on duty,” Judge Samuel Alito wrote when the court initially dismissed the certiorari case in 2019.

“What if the coach, instead of kneeling for a prayer, kneels during the national anthem because of moral opposition to racism,” Judge Clarence Thomas asked.

Kennedy, who began working in the school district in 2008, was initially reprimanded by the school for his private prayers in the field and later fired for violating his employer’s stop demands. He first filed a lawsuit in 2016 with the First Liberty Institute as legal counsel, then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, both of which sided with the district. school.

The Court recently struck down a Maine policy that excluded religious schools from a private school tuition assistance program.

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