WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Supreme Court said Monday that it has sided with the former Bremerton, Washington football coach who sought to kneel and pray on the field after games, a decision that could strengthen the acceptability of some religious practices in other public school settings.
The court ruled 6-3 for the coach with the court’s conservative justices in the majority and its liberals in dissent. The justices said the coach’s prayer was protected by the First Amendment.
"The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike," Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority.
The case forced the justices to wrestle with how to balance the religious and free speech rights of teachers and coaches with the rights of students not to feel pressured into participating in religious practices.
The decision is the latest in a line of Supreme Court rulings for religious plaintiffs. In another recent example, the court ruled this month that Maine can’t exclude religious schools from a program that offers tuition aid for private education, a decision that could ease religious organizations’ access to taxpayer money.
Following the decision, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction said, "it remains illegal and unethical for public school employees to coerce, pressure, persuade, or force students, players, staff, or other participants to engage in any religious practice as a condition of playing, employment, belonging, or participation."
OSPI said it would continue to investigate complaints of public school figures using "positional authority and taxpayer resources" to compel students to participate in religious expression.
"Individuals have always held express rights to exercise their own faith within reasonable limits in public spaces," State Superintendent Chris Reykdal. "This ruling affirms that right, but it also retains the long-held understanding that church and state (public entities) are separate. Schools will not embrace a particular faith or compel any individual to participate or recognize any faith or religious practice."
"Washington state’s long history of civil rights and religious freedom will not be altered by this ruling," Reykdal said. "Students and staff will remain free of any sanctioned religious beliefs or practices in the course of their public education."
In a dissent Monday, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the coach decision "sets us further down a perilous path in forcing states to entangle themselves with religion." She was joined in her dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Elena Kagan.
The coach and his attorneys at First Liberty Institute, a Christian legal group, were among those cheering the decision. Paul Clement, the attorney who argued the case on behalf of coach Joseph Kennedy, said in a statement that the decision would allow the coach "to finally return to the place he belongs – coaching football and quietly praying by himself after the game."
Kennedy himself said in a statement: "This is just so awesome. All I’ve ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys. I thank God for answering our prayers and sustaining my family through this long battle."
Kennedy, a Christian, is a former football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington. He started coaching at the school in 2008 and initially prayed alone on the 50-yard line at the end of games. Students started joining him, and over time he began to deliver a short, inspirational talk with religious references. Kennedy did that for years and also led students in locker room prayers. The school district learned what he was doing in 2015 and asked him to stop.
Kennedy stopped leading students in prayer in the locker room and on the field but wanted to continue praying on the field himself, with students free to join if they wished. Concerned about being sued for violating students’ religious freedom rights, the school asked him to stop his practice of kneeling and praying while still "on duty" as a coach after the game. When he continued to kneel and pray on the field, the school put him on paid leave.
In a statement, the Bremerton School District and their attorneys at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said the decision undermines that separation required by the Constitution. The school district said that it had "followed the law and acted to protect the religious freedom of all students and their families" and that it would work with its attorneys to make sure the district "remains a welcoming, inclusive environment for all students, their families and our staff."
"The Bremerton School District’s priorities have always been protecting the rights and safety of students while ensuring that they receive an exemplary education. That’s why, when we learned that a district employee was leading students in prayer, we followed the law and acted to protect the religious freedom of all students and their families. In light of the court’s decision, we will work with our attorneys to make certain that the Bremerton School District remains a welcoming, inclusive environment for all students, their families and our staff. We look forward to moving past the distraction of this 7-year legal battle so that our school community can focus on what matters most: providing our children the best education possible."
"The District will comply with the Court’s ruling, even as we continue to ensure—as we must—that employees don’t coerce or pressure students to pray or take part in religious exercises contrary to the students’ and their families’ faith."
"The District is assessing the decision and exactly what it means. We cannot confirm at this time whether Mr. Kennedy will be coaching in the fall."
Three justices on the court — Breyer, Kagan and Justice Samuel Alito — attended public high schools, while the rest attended Catholic schools.
The case is Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, 21-418.