On Monday morning, the Supreme Court handed down another important ruling, this time involving matters regarding the separation of church and state. In Washington state, Coach Joe Kennedy was fired from his job because of his post-game tradition of going to the fifty-yard line to kneel in a moment of silent prayer.
The issue at stake had to do with whether Kennedy, a public school employee who “prayed alone but in view of students” was solely executing his First Amendment rights or whether he was infringing upon the rights of others when praying silently after football games. Many times, Kennedy’s players would join him.
Some critics posited that Kennedy had coerced his players to join him in prayer by either offering them more playing time or offering them a preferred position on the team. Kennedy said he never made meeting him in prayer after the game a condition of playing time.
On Monday, the Court handed down a ruling in which they said the Washington state school district had violated Kennedy’s First Amendment rights. The vote was 6 – 3 in Kennedy’s favor.
The opinion, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, offers that Kennedy’s First Amendment rights provide him with the protection of Free Exercise and Free Speech. “Religious observances even as (the Constitution) allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”
Joe Kennedy was formerly employed by the Bremerton School District from 2008 to 2015. At some point during his coaching career, Kennedy began going to the fifty-yard line, where he would silently pray.
Eventually, his players joined him. The school district alleged that Kennedy would use religious themes in a motivational way prior to and after games. A coach from an opposing coach informed Bremerton that Kennedy was doing so, and the school’s administration ordered him to stop.
Kennedy did as his administration asked, briefly. However, he eventually told school officials that he would be resuming the practice. When Kennedy did, both his players and members of the community joined him on the field.
The school said that this presented a security issue due to the amount of people who joined him. The situation would later garner national media attention.
Bremerton School officials told Kennedy to pray in other locations either prior to or after the game, or that he could continue his silent prayer on the 50-yard line, but only after everyone had left the stadium. Kennedy refused, saying that he would continue his silent prayer ritual as he always had. Two games – and two silent prayer rituals later – Kennedy was placed on leave. He would eventually see his contract treated as a non-renewal.
Bremerton Schools said that Kennedy was violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, citing the separation of church and state.
Justice Gorsuch wrote in the opinion that “(The) reasoning (of the school district) is misguided.” He later added, “a proper understanding of the Establishment Clause (does not) require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor.”
Gorsuch pointed out that the Constitution is written so that Americans would both respect and tolerate the religious views – or lack of – in our fellow Americans.
Gorsuch also pointed out that the Constitution “is a natural outgrowth of the framers’ distrust of government attempts to regulate religion and suppress dissent.”
The English monarchy had at times punished individuals for their religious beliefs, especially at a time not too far from when the Pilgrims came to the New World in search of a place to freely practice their religion.
Both Gorsuch and Justice Alito said that Kennedy was no longer performing his professional duties as a government employee after the game. Therefore, “he prayed at a time when he was free to do so.”
Kennedy said he wants no financial compensation for his time away from coaching. He simply wants to go back to teaching.