Support from Some Justices for High School Coach Fired Over On-Field Prayers

A high school football coach was recently disciplined after refusing to stop praying on the field after games.

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) later heard oral arguments in the case of who was fired for reciting a prayer on the 50-yard line following games.

Joseph Kennedy served as varsity assistant coach and junior varsity head coach with the Bremerton School District in Washington state from 2008 to late 2015.

Kennedy claims that his termination violated his religious freedom and free speech rights. However, the school district argues that his prayers were a constitutional problem because he is considered a government official.

The district also contends that his actions may have had a coercive effect on students to join him in the prayer.

“Mr. Kennedy’s actions pressured them to pray, also divided the coaching staff, sparked vitriol against school officials, and led to the field being stormed and students getting knocked down,” said school district attorney Richard Katskee.

“When Mr. Kennedy repeatedly ignored sincere efforts to accommodate personal prayers, what was the district to do?”

Initially, Kennedy had begun reciting a post-game prayer by himself. However, eventually, students began to join him.

Later, this evolved into motivational speeches that included religious themes, according to court documents. After a coach from an opposing team brought it to the principal’s attention, the school district told Coach Kennedy he must stop.

While Kennedy temporarily stopped, he notified the district he would resume his prayer.

Once Kennedy resumed his on-field prayer, the situation garnered media attention. Additionally, the school district says the coach’s prayer raised security concerns.

When praying after the game, people took to the field in support.

The Bremerton school district tried to diffuse the situation by offering to allow Kennedy to pray in other locations before or after games.

They also said that he could pray on the 50-yard line after all people had left the premises. Kennedy refused.

He insisted he would continue his regular after-game prayer. After restarting the practice for two more games, the district placed the coach on leave.

Free speech vs. government speech

The U.S. Supreme Court focused on two issues: whether an employee praying along while working for a public school in the view of students is engaging in “government speech,” which is unprotected, or if it is not government speech, does it pose a problem when under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Paul Clement, Kennedy’s attorney, argued that this was a clear violation of Kennedy’s constitutional rights because he was participating in private — not government — speech, but that the school was only “taking action precisely because the speech is religious.”

The justices discussed whether or not Kennedy’s prayer took place during his coaching duties. Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked Clement if it would be acceptable for a teacher to deliver a prayer in their classroom.

According to Clement, it would be a problem if the prayer happened before class or during instructional time if students were present and the prayer was audible, but not if it was a private, inaudible prayer.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked whether or not the school could legally “fire someone making the sign of the cross before a game?”

Additionally, Sotomayor asked if it would be acceptable if a coach recited a prayer while wearing a Nazi symbol as part of his expression of his faith. Several justices equated Coach Kennedy’s prayer to other free speech expressions under the First Amendment that the school could not sanction.

Justice Samuel Alito questioned whether an employee of a school could be reprimanded or punished for carrying or displaying a Ukrainian flag on school property.

Justice Elena Kagan voiced concern since the coach determines players’ playing time. She commented on whether Kennedy’s prayers might have a coercive effect on students.

An opinion by a lower court noted that the principal of Kennedy’s school had been contacted by a parent who said his son “felt compelled to participate” in the prayer despite being an atheist. According to the parent, “he felt he wouldn’t get to play as much if he didn’t participate.”

Clement pushed back against that assertion, noting that the school district had not made the parent’s claim part of its reasoning for disciplining Coach Kennedy.