The religious liberty case was filed by Joseph Kennedy, a high school assistant football coach who was placed on administrative leave by Bremerton School District in 2015 after refusing to stop kneeling to pray audibly at the 50-yard line after his team’s games.
Kennedy and religious freedom advocates argued the coach was exercising his First Amendment right to pray. But the school district told the justices that Kennedy’s actions were coercive, and players’ parents complained their children on the team felt compelled to participate.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion, the bulk of which garnered the support of all the court’s Republican appointees.
“Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor,” Gorsuch wrote. “The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissent joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, included several photos of the Kennedy’s on-field prayers and called the court’s decision “misguided.”
“It elevates the religious rights of a school official, who voluntarily accepted public employment and the limits that public employment entails, over those of his students, who are required to attend school and who this Court has long recognized are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection,” Sotomayor wrote.
During oral arguments in April, the court’s conservative justices sounded concerned over the school district’s intrusion on Kennedy’s religious practice. The other justices focused their attention on the potential for coercion. They questioned if Kennedy’s prayers infringed on the religious rights of public school students and even parents’ ability to dictate their children’s religious activities.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who raised concerns at that argument session about coaches or other authority figures using their power to pressure students to join religious or other unrelated activities, declined to sign on to the portion of Gorsuch’s opinion that said the coach’s actions didn’t amount to coercion. Kavanaugh joined the bottom-line ruling against the school system in the case, but did not write separately to elaborate on his views.
Kennedy celebrated his victory Monday in the long-running dispute.
“I just can’t stop smiling, and thank God and thank everybody who supported me. And I found out that I’m not insane,” Kennedy said on Fox News just after the decision. “It just feels good the First Amendment is alive and well.”
Asked if he’d return to the Washington state school, he said: “Soon as the school district says, ‘Hey, come back,’ I’m there, absolutely.”
The school district issued a statement pledging to put the polarizing fight behind it.
“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 statement said.
Monday’s decision came on the second round the case made at the high court. The justices ruled against Kennedy in 2019 because he had not proven that his prayer ritual was the basis for the school’s decision to suspend him.
The ruling on the coach’s case was among three decisions released Monday, following the court’s blockbuster decision Friday overturning Roe v. Wade. Four cases remain to be decided before the court wraps up for the summer, including one about the powers of federal regulatory agencies and another in a case challenging President Joe Biden’s effort to end former President Donald Trump’s policy requiring most asylum applicants at the U.S.-Mexico border to remain in Mexico while awaiting a hearing in the U.S.
Olivia Olander contributed to this report.