The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment rights of a Bremerton, Wash. coach who prayed at the 50-yard line of the football field after football games.
Joseph Kennedy was a high school football coach in Bremerton, Wash. who routinely prayed after games by briefly kneeling on the field.
The 18-year Marine veteran was an assistant coach for the Bremerton High School varsity football team. He made a commitment to God that he would give thanks at the conclusion of each game for what the players had accomplished and for being part of their lives.
From his first game in 2008, Kennedy took a knee and quietly prayed for about 15-30 seconds. He continued to pray after every game for seven years. Students took notice and some started to join him.
In 2015, the school board received a complaint from someone on an opposing team and ordered Kennedy not to pray with students. But Kennedy continued. He asked for a religious accommodation, and against the orders of the school board, prayed after a game that year. The school district banned Kennedy from doing any “demonstrative religious activity” that is “readily observable to … students and the attending public.” His contract was recommended for non-renewal.
Kennedy wrote on Facebook, “I think I just might have been fired for praying.” Kennedy filed a lawsuit contending his First Amendment right were being curtailed.
“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,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority decision. “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.”
The decision said, “The Court holds that both the free exercise and free speech clauses protect Kennedy’s right to pray at midfield following high school football games.”
The decision was 6-3, with the court’s three Leftist members dissenting. It is seen as a victory for the rights of government workers to exercise their right of free speech.
The case was argued by First Liberty Institute, which filed the lawsuit against the school district, arguing that banning coaches from quietly praying, just because they can be seen by the public, is wrong and violates the Constitution.
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, and then the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, sided with the school district. First Liberty Institute appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In January 2022, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.