Supreme Court Delivers a Victory for Religious Freedom to Coach Kennedy
COMMENTARY: The Supreme Court, in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, dealt a setback to government officials who have tried for decades to scrub all signs of faith from our nation’s public schools.
The Supreme Court Monday affirmed a public high school football coach’s right to pray after games. The court’s decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District is a setback for government officials who have tried for decades to scrub all signs of faith from our nation’s public schools.
Coach Joseph Kennedy is a former U.S. Marine who in 2008 became an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington — the same school he graduated from in 1988. He is a devout Christian who believes he is compelled by his faith to “give thanks through prayer” at the end of each game. He did this for seven seasons by kneeling down on the 50-yard line and saying short private prayer after games. There were times when Bremerton athletes prayed alongside Kennedy. “It’s a free country,” he told players who asked to join him.
In the fall of 2015, Bremerton school officials tried to put an end to Kennedy’s practice of thanksgiving. The district amended its policies and enacted a sweeping new ban on “demonstrative religious activity, readily observable to (if not intended to be observed by) students and the attending public.” They said that Kennedy could pray after games in a “private location within the school building, athletic facility, or press box.”
Kennedy refused their “accommodation.” He then received a poor performance review and was not offered a contract to coach the following season.
Kennedy is committed to his faith and the athletes on the Bremerton football team. Because he didn’t want to walk away from either, he filed suit in federal court, claiming that Bremerton violated his constitutional rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion. Although he lost in both the lower district court and court of appeals, Coach Kennedy and the Constitution fared much better before the nation’s highest court.
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court vindicated Kennedy’s freedoms of speech and religion from the tyranny of Bremerton’s administrators.
“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic — whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head,” explained Justice Neil Gorsuch for the court’s majority.
It was important for the Supreme Court to reaffirm that teachers and coaches, much like other government employees, don’t give up their rights under the Constitution when they work in our public schools. Of course, the government as an employer may restrict the speech of its employees when they represent the government. This means that school administrators are able to step in when a teacher uses precious classroom time to push questionable ideologies. What a teacher or coach says that is unrelated to his or her duties, however, is protected speech.
What does this mean in Coach Kennedy’s case? Kennedy had agreed not to lead team prayers before games began. His personal prayer of thanksgiving after a game had ended was different. He was no longer coaching.
With the rise of government-imposed cancel culture, many teachers and coaches with religious beliefs at odds with a secular progressive ethic feel pressure to self-censor. What’s even worse is that some schools are forcing teachers to speak “gender-affirming” language in support of an agenda that is not only at odds with biological reality but also offends traditional religious belief.
In light of this, it’s important that in today’s decision the Supreme Court also reminds the lower courts to be particularly vigilant when school administrators undermine the twin freedoms of speech and religion. “That the First Amendment doubly protects religious speech is no accident. It is a natural outgrowth of the framers’ distrust of government attempts to regulate religion and suppress dissent,” wrote Gorsuch.
And finally, in addition to vindicating free speech and religious exercise, the court clarifies another important part of the First Amendment — the Establishment Clause. The Constitution’s separation of church and state was misunderstood by Bremerton school officials as justifying restrictions on Kennedy’s religious freedom. But, as Gorsuch explained, allowing Kennedy to pray is a far cry from imposing prayer. “[I]n this case Mr. Kennedy’s private religious exercise did not come close to crossing any line one might imagine separating protected private expression from impermissible government coercion.”
Many public school administrators seem determined to muzzle religious beliefs and practices, while at the same time forcing their pupils to absorb quasi-religious progressive ideologies in the classroom. They won’t like today’s decision. That’s too bad, but they need to be reined in when they push their secularist agenda so aggressively that they violate both the letter and the spirit of the U.S. Constitution.