A Seattle-area football coach who was fired for praying on the fifty-yard line with his players just won a massive victory in the Supreme Court, with the court’s conservative majority disagreeing with the lower courts, which sided against him, and finding that the school district was in the wrong for firing him for praying.
BREAKING: Supreme Court sides with a high school football coach in a First Amendment case about prayer at the 50-yard-line. In a 6-3 ruling, SCOTUS says the public school district violated the coach’s rights when it barred him from praying on the field after games.
BREAKING: Supreme Court sides with a high school football coach in a First Amendment case about prayer at the 50-yard-line. In a 6-3 ruling, SCOTUS says the public school district violated the coach's rights when it barred him from praying on the field after games.
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Justice Gorsuch, who wrote the opinion, described the case as one where a government entity retaliated against a man for engaging in activity that is clearly protected by the First Amendment and describing what the school district did as ferreting out and suppressing religious speech.
In his words:
“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. And the only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisal rested on a mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress. Religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.“
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Though the case is a major victory for the religious and their right to speak freely, it’s not as startling as a decision as the Dobbs decision was, as the conservative majority had shown a sympathy for the coach’s case during the oral argument, as the Washington Post reported:
Justice Clarence Thomas questioned whether Kennedy would have been disciplined if he had taken a knee during the national anthem to protest racism. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. questioned Katskee, legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, about other political activism.
Suppose “when Coach Kennedy went out to the center of the field … all he did was to wave a Ukrainian flag. Would you have fired him?” Alito asked.
Katskee said the school district could discipline a coach for such actions because it “doesn’t want its event taken over for political speech.”
“Where is the school district rule that says that?” Alito demanded.
So the win isn’t as surprising as some others have been for conservatives, though it is still massive and one that should be cheered.
Coach Joe Kennedy, the man fired by the district for praying, gave a statement at the time the Court decided to hear the case, saying:
“Six years away from the football field has been far too long. I am extremely grateful that the Supreme Court is going to hear my case and pray that I will soon be able to be back on the field coaching the game and players I love.”
Importantly, and showing the craziness of the situation and firing of Coach Kennedy, he never told players to pray with him. Rather, he simply started praying by himself on the fifty-yard line after games and, gradually, players started joining him to pray.
The school district found that worthy of being attacked and so persecuted him, firing him for daring to quietly pray. That persecution was defended by Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser, who said:
“No child attending public school should have to pray to play school sports. No student should ever be made to feel excluded – whether it’s in the classroom or on the football field – because they don’t share the religious beliefs of their coaches, teachers or fellow students.
“The Bremerton School District followed the law and protected students’ religious freedom when it stopped its football coach from holding coercive prayers with players on the 50-yard line after high school football games. Public schoolchildren and their families – like all of us – have a constitutional right to believe as they choose and be treated equally by their public schools, regardless of their beliefs. The Bremerton School District fulfilled its legal duty to respect their fundamental rights.”
How a coach quietly praying to himself was “coercive” was unsaid, and evidently not an argument that Gorsuch and the conservative majority found compelling. Gorsuch, effectively blasting the argument to shreds in his decision, said:
“Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor.”
But now the district has been chastised, religious liberty and expression have been strongly defended, and Coach Kennedy has, at long last, won.