WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a high school football coach had the constitutional right to pray at the 50-yard line after his team’s games.
The vote was 6 to 3, with the three liberal court members dissenting.
The case pitted the rights of government employees to free speech and the free exercise of their faith against the Constitution’s ban on government endorsement of religion and the ability of public employers to regulate speech. At work. The decision came in tension with decades of Supreme Court precedents that prohibited pressuring students to participate in religious activities.
The case involved Joseph Kennedy, an assistant coach at a public high school in Bremerton, Washington, near Seattle. For eight years Mr. Kennedy regularly offered prayers after games, with students often joining him. He also led and participated in locker room prayers, a practice he later abandoned and did not defend in the Supreme Court.
In 2015, after an opposing coach told the principal of Mr. Kennedy’s school that he thought it was “pretty cool” that Mr. Kennedy was allowed to pray on the field, the school board ordered Mr. Kennedy not to pray if it interfered with his duties or any students involved. The two sides disagreed on whether Mr. Kennedy had complied.
A school official recommended that the coach’s contract not be renewed for the 2016 season, and Mr. Kennedy did not reapply for the job.
The two sides offered starkly different accounts of what happened in Mr. Kennedy’s final months, complicating the Supreme Court’s task. Mr. Kennedy said he was only looking to offer a brief, quiet, solitary prayer little different from saying grace before a meal in the school cafeteria. The school board responded that the public nature of his prayers and his stature as a leader and role model meant that students felt compelled to participate, regardless of their religion and whether they wanted to or not.
For the past 60 years, the Supreme Court has rejected prayer in public schools, at least when it was officially required or part of an official ceremony like high school graduation. As recently as 2000, the court ruled that organized student-led prayers at high school football games violated the government’s First Amendment ban on establishing a religion.
“The delivery of a pre-game prayer has the improper effect of compelling those present to participate in an act of religious worship,” Judge John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.
Mr Kennedy’s lawyers said these school prayer precedents were irrelevant because they involved government speech. The central question in Mr. Kennedy’s case, they said, was whether government employees were giving up their own rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion in the workplace.
The school district, his lawyers replied, was entitled to demand that Mr. Kennedy stop praying as he had done. “Whether or not Kennedy’s very public speech was official, the district could regulate it,” the school district’s Supreme Court brief said. “His practice of the prayer wrested control of its own events from the district, interfered with students’ religious freedom, and subjected the district to substantial litigation risks.”
The school district noted that a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, criticized what he called “a misleading narrative” created by Mr. Kennedy’s lawyers.
Mr Kennedy has never been disciplined for offering silent and private prayers, Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. wrote last year. Instead, the judge wrote of one game, Mr. Kennedy “prayed out loud in the middle of the football pitch” just after it ended, “surrounded by players, members of the opposing team, parents, a local politician, and the media with television cameras recording the event, all of whom had learned of Kennedy’s planned actions through local news and social media.
When the Supreme Court declined to hear an earlier appeal in the case in 2019, four justices expressed qualms about Mr Kennedy’s treatment.
“The Ninth Circuit’s understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling and may warrant future scrutiny,” Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote at the time, adding that judges are expected to wait for more information on “significant unresolved factual issues.” He was joined by Justices Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas.
After further proceedings, the Ninth Circuit again ruled for the school board. This time, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, No. 21-418.