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US supreme court affirms religious liberty, rules in favor of public high school football coach punished for praying after games

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On Monday morning, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District that a public high school football coach in the state of Washington had his First Amendment rights violated after he was placed on administrative leave by the school district and banned from participating in the football program for praying on the field after games in view of students.

“SCOTUS sides with a high school football coach in a First Amendment case about prayer at the 50-yard-line,” SCOTUS Blog tweeted Monday morning. “In a 6-3 ruling, SCOTUS says the public school district violated the coach’s free speech and free exercise rights when it barred him from praying on the field after games.” The case was ruled along ideological lines.

SCOTUS sides with a high school football coach in a First Amendment case about prayer at the 50-yard-line. In a 6-3 ruling, SCOTUS says the public school district violated the coach’s free speech and free exercise rights when it barred him from praying on the field after games.

“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,” Gorsuch wrote. “Religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”

Joseph Kennedy, a Marine veteran, was an assistant football coach for the Bremerton High School (BHS) varsity team in 2008 when he started a tradition of kneeling and praying after games. Some students later volunteered to join him. In 2015, a school administrator addressed the issue with the coach after an opposing team complained. After an investigation, Kennedy was later placed on administrative leave and barred from “participating in any capacity in the BHS football program.”

“Kennedy’s private religious exercise did not come close to crossing any line one might imagine separating protected private expression from impermissible government coercion,” Gorsuch wrote on Monday.

“Learning how to tolerate speech or prayer of all kinds is part of learning how to live in a pluralistic society, a trait of character essential to a tolerant citizenry,” the court added.

Non-profit conservative legal organization First Liberty Institute took up Kennedy’s case in 2016, and lost in both district court and at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court also denied the request, but four justices – Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh – issued a statement expressing serious concern about how the school district and the lower courts had understood the First Amendment rights of public school teachers.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton, who again sided with the school district in 2020, as did the 9th Circuit in mid-2021. Attorneys with First Liberty and Kirkland & Ellis refiled the case at the U.S. Supreme Court in September 2021 and the high court agreed in January to hear it.

In reaction to his victory Monday, Kennedy said in a press release, “This is just so awesome. All I’ve ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys.”

“I am incredibly grateful to the Supreme Court, my fantastic legal team, and everyone who has supported us,” he added. “I thank God for answering our prayers and sustaining my family through this long battle.”

“This is a tremendous victory for Coach Kennedy and religious liberty for all Americans,” Kelly Shackelford, President, CEO, and Chief Counsel for First Liberty added.

“Our Constitution protects the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired,” Shackleton remarked. “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.”

 

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