A high school in Washington wrongly punished a football coach after he prayed on the field, the Supreme Court ruled Monday, potentially paving the way for fewer restrictions on how public school employees can express their religion while on the job despite Constitutional restrictions on religion in schools.
The court sided 6-3 with Joseph Kennedy, a former high school football coach in Washington who was punished after praying on the football field during games, which the school said violated the separation of church and state.
Kennedy argued that the school district unlawfully violated his First Amendment rights to free exercise and free speech, which the Supreme Court agreed with.
In a ruling that split along ideological lines, the justices ruled that Kennedy was not “acting within the scope of his duties as a coach” because he was praying after the game ended and wasn’t doing any of his job duties, and thus his prayers were First Amendment-protected speech.
The school district argued that any religious speech by school officials could be “impermissibly coercive on students”—and student athletes said they felt pressured to join in the prayers—but the justices ruled that requiring school officials to have no religious expression whatsoever “would undermine a long constitutional tradition in which learning how to tolerate diverse expressive activities has always been ‘part of learning how to live in a pluralistic society.’”
Though the school argued the prayers violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause , which has repeatedly been used in court to prohibit prayer in public schools, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the court that Kennedy’s actions “did not come close to crossing any line one might imagine separating protected private expression from impermissible government coercion.”
In its ruling, the court also “abandoned” its precedent in Lemon v. Kurtzman , which set a higher standard for when schools can involve religion without violating the Establishment Clause, and the court’s liberal justices argued the majority’s opinion “rejects longstanding concerns surrounding government endorsement of religion.”
“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,” Gorsuch wrote for the court’s majority. “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. … The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”
“Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. “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.”
The Bremerton School District put Kennedy on paid administrative leave in 2015 after it first became aware of his praying from another school’s coach, and declined to renew Kennedy’s contract after he refused the school’s requests to find a more private way to pray. Kennedy has described his practice as saying a “brief, quiet prayer to himself,” but the school alleges the prayer was much more public—taking place on the 50-yard line and with others joining in—and students alleged they felt pressured to take part in order to get on the coach’s “good side.” Gorsuch dismissed those concerns in the court’s opinion as “hearsay,” while the liberal justices argued the majority erred by “ignoring” the fact Kennedy asked others to joined him and caused a “severe disruption to school events.” Lower federal district and appeals courts had both ruled in the school’s favor, and the Supreme Court took up the case this term after previously rejecting it in 2019 at an earlier stage in the litigation.
The court’s ruling Monday came after the 6-3 conservative court has repeatedly ruled in favor of greater religious liberty, including a ruling last term that allowed Catholic adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex foster parents and a decision this term allowing a death row inmate to receive prayer from a pastor as he was put to death. The court ruled last week against a school tuition program in Maine that barred public funds from being used on religious schools, ruling the program must apply to non-secular schools and the prohibition on religious schools violated the “free exercise” clause .