A high school football coach who lost his job because he regularly went to the 50-yard line at the end of a game to offer a private prayer of thanksgiving had his case heard before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Joseph A. Kennedy, a Christian, coached football at Bremerton School District in Washington State from 2008 to 2015. During that time, he would take a moment at the end of each game to pray at the 50-yard line, in thanksgiving for “player safety, sportsmanship and spirited competition.”
The practice evolved over the years from a quiet 30-second prayer to motivational speeches that would draw in players, fans, and players from the opposing teams. Kennedy also tended to add Christian messages to his speeches that eventually caused friction between him and the school.
The district informed Kennedy that while his speeches were welcome, they would have to remain secular in order to “avoid alienation of any team member.” Furthermore, the school district suggested that Kennedy pray in private, at which Kennedy took umbrage. He ultimately declined the offer and continued giving Christian-infused speeches until he was placed on leave in late 2015.
In August 2016, Kennedy sued the Bremerton School District in federal district court, arguing that the district violated his constitutional rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton ruled against him, finding that “while public schools do not have unfettered discretion to restrict an employee’s religious speech, they do have the ability to prevent a coach from praying at the center of the football field immediately after games.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco ruled in favor of the school district, saying that school officials were entitled to forbid Kennedy’s public prayers to avoid a potential violation of the prohibition of government establishment of religion.
Oral arguments before the Supreme Court on Monday lasted nearly two hours. Kennedy’s attorney, Paul D. Clement, said that the coach’s midfield prayer was “entirely his own. That private religious expression was doubly protected by the free exercise and free speech clauses.”
The school district has maintained that Kennedy was free to pray in a less public space, but the coach insisted on always going to the 50-yard line, though the game was over by then. Some justices insisted that private speech is protected by the First Amendment, even if it takes place on public grounds. But other justices pointed out that this private prayer on the field could also seem coercive because players could feel like they should participate.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wanted to know why Kennedy insisted on praying at the 50-yard line. Justice Elena Kagan said that prayer by teachers and coaches “kind of puts undue pressure on students to participate when they may not wish to. They feel like they have to join religious observations they don’t wish to join.”
Justice Brett Kavanaugh wondered about the player “who thinks, if I don’t participate in this, I won’t start next week. Every player is worried about playing time.”
That was certainly the position of Richard B. Katskee, the attorney representing the school district, who argued that students feel the pressure to please their coach, that they know coaches make critical decisions about playing time that can affect college applications and scholarships.
But Kavanaugh also pointed out that there was no evidence that Kennedy preferred students who joined him at the 50-yard line, nor any effort to get all the players to join.
Clement said that even the school district admitted that sometimes Kennedy was surrounded by students when he prayed, and sometimes was by himself. He argued that the students clearly did not feel coerced.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked whether Kennedy would have been disciplined for protesting the invasion of Ukraine, climate change or racial injustice. Similarly,
Justice Clarence Thomas asked Katskee, “If the coach, instead of taking a knee for prayer, took a knee during the National Anthem because of moral opposition to racism, would — how would your school district respond?”
Lori Windham, senior counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a statement after the hearing, “Americans express their faith in public all the time. Muslims and Sikhs grow beards, Catholics wear crucifixes, and Orthodox Jews wear yarmulkes. Should those religious expressions be banned from public schools? Of course not. … Religious liberty isn’t a right to be weird in the corner. It’s a right to bring the deepest, most important truths to public life.”