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Supreme Court Rules In Favor Of High School Football Coach Punished For Praying After Games

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On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District that a public high school football coach in Washington state had his First Amendment rights violated after he was placed on administrative leave and banned from participating in the football program for praying on the field after games where students could see.

“SCOTUS sides with a high school football coach in a First Amendment case about prayer at the 50-yard-line,” SCOTUSblog wrote on Twitter. “In a 6-3 ruling, SCOTUS says the public school district violated the coach’s free speech and free exercise rights when it barred him from praying on the field after games.”

Writing for the majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch explained, “Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic—whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head.”

“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,” Gorsuch added. “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. Mr. Kennedy is entitled to summary judgment on his First Amendment claims.”

In 2008, high school football coach Joseph Kennedy began a tradition of praying at midfield after each game. Over time, his players and even members of the opposing team began to join him. In September 2015, a school administrator addressed the matter with Kennedy after an opposing team complained and the coach briefly stopped his prayers.

On October 14, 2015, Kennedy told the school district that he was planning on resuming his prayer tradition at the next game. The school district told the coach that his prayers violated the district’s policy, but Kennedy continued to pray at the next two games. The school district subsequently placed him on administrative leave, banned him from participating in the football program, and refused to renew his contract for the following season. Kennedy took the issue to federal district court, arguing that the school district had violated his First Amendment rights.

“Kennedy’s private religious exercise did not come close to crossing any line one might imagine separating protected private expression from impermissible government coercion,” Gorsuch wrote. “Learning how to tolerate speech or prayer of all kinds is part of learning how to live in a pluralistic society, a trait of character essential to a tolerant citizenry.”

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