On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court said that the firing of a football coach who lost his job after praying at the 50-yard line violated the First Amendment rights.
Coach Joseph Kennedy had been praying with his players at the end of games since the fall of 2008 until he was placed on administrative leave in 2015. The post-game tradition lasted 7 years until the Bremerton School District launched an investigation following a parent complaint.
The 6-3 decision overrules Lemon v. Kurtzman, a decision made in 1971 to avoid violation of the Establishment Clause which prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.”
Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the majority. “Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents, as embodied in both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” wrote Sotomayor. She also stated, “This decision does a disservice to schools and the young citizens they serve.”
The court ruled that coach Joseph Kennedy’s actions are protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution and that his prayers could not be restricted by the Washington state school district as they as considered “private speech.”
“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,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority opinion. “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 religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”
“The court holds that both the free exercise and free speech clauses protect Kennedy’s right to play at midfield following high school football games,” ruled the court.
The Kennedy v. Bremerton School District decision will surely impact disputes regarding the presence of region on school grounds and the separation of church and state.