The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of Joe Kennedy, the high school football coach who was fired in 2015 for visibly praying on the field after games.
Justice Gorsuch affirmed the coach’s First Amendment rights in the majority opinion of Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District saying that, “[r]espect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic.”
The decision was heralded as a “tremendous victory for Coach Kennedy and religious liberty for all Americans” by Kennedy’s legal team, First Liberty.
Many conservatives are hailing the ruling as a first step towards restoring religious liberty in America, including Ted Cruz who tweeted, “I’m thankful the Supreme Court fully enforced the First Amendment—in a major victory for religious liberty—and upheld our God-given right to practice our faith.”
The President of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins, tweeted that, “The Court has taken a significant step in repairing America’s foundation of religious freedom, which has been under relentless assault over the last 60 yrs.”
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Kennedy served as an assistant coach for the Bremerton School District in Bremerton, Washington. During his tenure as coach he had a post-game tradition of kneeling for prayer at the 50-yard line. Sometimes students and other coaches voluntarily joined him in this tradition.
Justice Gorsuch explains in the majority opinion, which was signed by Justices Alito, Thomas, Kavanaugh and Barrett, and Chief Justice Roberts, that coach Kennedy was wrongly fired for his visible prayers. The controversy in this case hinged on the fact that Kennedy was serving in an official school capacity when he prayed, and the School District sought to prove that his prayers were coercing students into his religion, which could be a violation of the Establishment Clause.
Justice Gorsuch takes several pages to explain why this specific case does not violate the Establishment Clause and concludes that:
“Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance, based on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination. Mr. Kennedy is entitled to summary judgment on his religious exercise and free speech claims.”
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Unsurprisingly, the left is outraged by the decision.
In response to the ruling Representative Illhan Omar (D-MN) tweeted that, “The Supreme Court just ruled that public school teachers can pressure students to join in prayer at public school events but can also retaliate against those that don’t join in. Religious freedom is dead in America.”
However, Kennedy’s lawyer, Kelly Shackelford, explained that, far from any coercion, two students who did not join the prayers were even promoted to team captain.
Gorsuch also explained in the opinion that, “The First Amendment’s protections extend to ‘teachers and students,’ neither of whom ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.’ It is not dispositive that Coach Kennedy served as a role model and remained on duty after games. To hold otherwise is to posit an ‘excessively broad job descriptio[n]’ by treating everything teachers and coaches say in the workplace as government speech subject to government control.”
Slate news, however, went with the provocative and patently false headline, “Supreme Court Lets Public Schools Coerce Students Into Practicing Christianity.”
Would Slate news write headlines like this if the coach in question were Muslim or Jewish? This is exactly what an Amicus brief filed in the case by the Shaffer-Jaff law firm posited.
“Such religious expression does not suddenly become government speech just because it occurs at a place of public employment,” the brief stated. “Because of the well-understood personal and individual nature of expressions of faith, it would be wrong as a factual matter to strip such expressions of their individual significance by attributing them to a person’s employer. No one, for example, would ever view an Abercrombie employee’s decision to wear a headscarf at work as Abercrombie’s endorsement of Islam.”
“A Jewish person who teaches public school students while wearing a yarmulke is doing nothing different in kind than a teacher or a coach privately praying in the view of his students or others.”
Justice Sotomayor refutes this idea in her dissent which was signed also by Justices Bryer and Kagan. Sotomayor sides with the school district stating that, “the District has a strong argument that Kennedy’s speech, formally integrated into the center of a District event, was speech in his official capacity as an employee that is not entitled to First Amendment protections at all.”
“His right to pray at any time and in any manner he wishes while exercising his professional duties is not absolute.”
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