Supreme Court sides with coach who lost his job for praying at 50-yard line after games

·Senior Writer
·3 min read

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of a former high school football coach who lost his job for praying at the 50-yard line after games, saying the coach’s prayers were a private matter protected by the First Amendment.

In 2015, Joseph Kennedy, an assistant coach at a public high school in Bremerton, Wash., was placed on administrative leave by the school district after he refused to move to a private location to pray.

Kennedy, whose players often joined him at midfield, said he should be allowed to express his faith in public.

He was not fired; the district gave him a poor performance evaluation, and he did not apply to renew his contract after the football season.

During oral arguments in April, Kennedy’s lawyers argued that the ritual is protected under the Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The school district said it suspended him to avoid violating the Establishment Clause of the Constitution by appearing to endorse a particular faith.

Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy takes a knee in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy takes a knee in front of the Supreme Court on April 25. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

But Kennedy said he never asked or pressured anyone else to pray with him. The school district argued that Kennedy’s players looked up to their coach and felt coerced into following him.

In a 6-3 ruling, the court’s conservative majority sided with the coach.

“Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. “Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor. The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.”

The court’s three liberal members — Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — dissented.

“This decision does a disservice to schools and the young citizens they serve, as well as to our Nation’s longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state,” Sotomayor wrote in their dissent. “This Court consistently has recognized that school officials leading prayer is constitutionally impermissible. Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents.”

Sotomayor included a photograph of a Kennedy-led prayer circle in her dissent, rebutting Gorsuch's assertion that he "offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied."

Kennedy, who now lives in Florida, has said he would consider returning to Washington to regain his job as a part-time football coach.

“This is just so awesome,” he said in a statement in response to the court’s ruling. “All I’ve ever wanted was to be back in the field with my guys. I am incredibly grateful to the Supreme Court, my fantastic legal team, and everyone who has supported us. I thank God for answering our prayers.”