The Supreme Court has issued another decision, this one involving the right of a football coach to pray after a public school sporting event. This decision promises to re-ignite the debate between religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
Joseph Kennedy, a former Washington state high school football coach in the Bremerton School District sued the district after he was told he could not pray on the field after football games. At the end of each game, he had been taking a knee at the 50-yard line to pray with any interested members of both teams.
The school district told him he was not allowed to do that, and he complied for a while. Ultimately he decided it was something he had to fight, and he ultimately lost his job because of it, by not reapplying after the 2015 season amid poor performance evaluations. He ended up taking his fight all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. And he won.
Central issues in the case were “[w]hether a public-school employee who says a brief, quiet prayer by himself while at school and visible to students is engaged in government speech that lacks any First Amendment protection” and “[w]hether, assuming that such religious expression is private and protected by the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses, the Establishment Clause nevertheless compels public schools to prohibit it.”
The school district argued that students on the football team looked up to their coach and felt coerced into doing as he did, reports NBC News. They said that the coach’s actions amounted to government action.
The lower courts ruled that the coach was acting in his official capacity as a public school employee so his actions were not protected free speech. They cited Supreme Court precedent that said “when public employees act in their official capacities, they are speaking more for the government than for themselves,” NBC News said.
The Supreme Court, in a rather scathing opinion, criticized the lower court’s decision saying it was “egregiously wrong and squarely conflicts with this court’s precedents.” The High Court said that what Coach Kennedy did in prayer was not part of his duties as a school employee and coach of the football team, at which time his right to free speech would have had restrictions. It explained that “…Kennedy’s prayer,  involved taking a few moments for brief, personal expression at a time when all manner of other brief, personal activities were permissible. Those acts of personal devotion were manifestly not part of Kennedy’s duties as a coach, any more than if Kennedy had taken those same roughly 30 seconds to “call home or mak[e] a reservation for dinner at a local restaurant.”
In a nutshell, the Supreme Court held 6-3 that Coach Kennedy had the right to do as he did, and pray after the school game.
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Coach Kennedy lives in Florida now, but has stated his intention, if he won his case, to return to Bremerton and re-apply for a part-time coaching position. Did they reach the right decision in this case? Do you think they will rehire him?