Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Praying High School Football Coach

Kjetil Ree

On Monday, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the former high school football coach whose prayers at the 50-yard line drew sharp controversy and crowds.

The 6-3 vote is a symbolic victory for public expression of prayer and faith in public school settings. The court ruling stressed the coach’s prayers were first a private, personal expression of his faith, not the official act of establishing religion.

Assistant coach Joe Kennedy was placed on administrative leave from Washington states Bremerton High School in 2015 after a rival team complained about his tradition of kneeling in prayer after the game concluded. Kennedy’s actions had become a tradition. The coach began kneeling at the 50-yard line in 2008.

Justice Neil Gorsuch composed the majority opinion, which reads in part, “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,” the justice wrote. “Religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”

Writing in dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan, gave a scathing rebuke of the majority. The dissenting opinion reads in part, “This case is about whether a public school must permit a school official to kneel, bow his head, and say a prayer at the center of a school event. The Constitution does not authorize, let alone require, public schools to embrace this conduct. Since Engel v. Vitale, 370 U. S. 421 (1962), this Court consistently has recognized that school officials leading prayer is constitutionally impermissible.”

The dissenting opinion continued, “Today, the Court once again weakens the backstop. It elevates one individual’s interest in personal religious exercise, in the exact time and place of that individual’s choosing, over society’s interest in protecting the separation between church and state, eroding the protections for religious liberty for all.”

Kennedy was represented by the non-profit conservative legal organization First Liberty Institute which took up the case in 2016. The legal journey through District Courts, the Courts of Appeals, to the Supreme Court in 2019, and back to the Supreme Court for a second time in September 2021 underscores the persistence of the non-profit legal organization.