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The Supreme Court has awarded a big victory to a former Washington high school football coach who lost his job for reciting a prayer at the 50-yard line after games.
The question was whether a public school employee praying alone but in full view of the students was engaging in unprotected “government speech”, and if it is not government speech, it raises- Does it still have a problem under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court ruled Monday that the answer to both questions is no.
“Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in brief, silent, and personal religious observation doubly protected by the free exercise and free speech clauses of the First Amendment. And the only meaningful justification that the government offered for its retaliation was based on an erroneous view that it was its duty to root out and repress,” Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote in the court opinion. “Religious observances even if they allow comparable secular discourse. The Constitution does not mandate or condone this type of discrimination.”
Joe Kennedy was junior varsity head coach and varsity assistant coach for the Bremerton school district in Washington from 2008 to 2015. He started saying a post-game prayer himself, but eventually students started joining him . According to court documents, this evolved into motivational speeches that included religious themes. After an opposing coach brought it to the principal’s attention, the school district told Kennedy to quit. He did, temporarily, then informed the school that he would resume the practice.
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The situation attracted media attention, and when Kennedy announced he would begin praying on the ground again, it raised security concerns. When he prayed after the game, a number of people stormed the pitch in support.
The school district then offered to let Kennedy pray in other places before and after games, or for him to pray at the 50-yard line after everyone had left, but he refused, insisting on the fact that he would continue his regular practice. After continuing prayers in two more games, the school district placed Kennedy on leave.
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During oral argument, Judge Clarence Thomas questioned how the prayer could be considered government speech, given the school district’s vehement and public opposition to the prayer.
Kennedy’s attorney, Paul Clement, argued in court that the dismissal was a clear constitutional violation because not only had Kennedy engaged in private — not governmental — speech, but the school was “taking measures precisely because the speech was religious”.
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Judge Elena Kagan had expressed concern during arguments that, as a coach who determines players’ playing time, Kennedy’s prayers could have a coercive effect on students. Indeed, a lower court notice noted that the principal was contacted by a parent who said his son “felt compelled to participate” in the prayer despite being an atheist, because “he felt that he wouldn’t play as much if he did.” not participate.”
Clement rejected this argument, stating that the school district never raised this issue as a reason to discipline Kennedy.