On Monday morning (27), the United States Supreme Court acquitted a Christian football coach who was fired for praying on the field after the games. Once again, the government-led thought police tried to muzzle a person of faith; once again, the Court detained them.
The winning case, Joseph Kennedy, was an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington. His Christian faith inspired him to “give thanks in prayer” at the end of each game. How did he manifest this gratitude? Kneeling at the 50 yard line to say a brief prayer when the game was over.
Kennedy prayed after games this way for seven years before the games ended. school district officials to silence him. They started by opening an investigation. So they amended school district policies to enact a new comprehensive ban on “demonstrative religious activity, readily observable (except when intentionally observed) by students and the public in attendance.” As a “compensation,” Kennedy was told that he could pray after games in a “private location within the school building, athletic facility, or press room.”
When Coach Kennedy continued his private prayer on the field after the games, the district placed him on administrative leave. After the 2015 season ended, the district authorities issued a poor performance review that advised against his rehiring. He hasn’t returned to the field since, but he hasn’t given in to the blackmail of his bosses either. Instead, he stood up to the authoritarian tactics of the Bremerton School District, demanding his constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion. And after losing both the lower court and the appeals court, he took his case to the Supreme Court – and won.
Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote the opinion for the 6-3 majority of the Court, holding that both the First Amendment’s free speech and free speech provisions protect Kennedy’s right to pray. “The Constitution and the best of our traditions,” Gorsuch wrote, “advise mutual respect and tolerance, non-censorship and repression, for both religious and non-religious views.”
Monday’s decision clarified three important principles:
First, courts must be particularly vigilant when the government restricts rights that are doubly protected by the First Amendment. “Where the Free Expression Clause protects religious exercises, whether communicative or not, the Free Expression Clause provides overlapping protection for expressive religious activities,” noted Gorsuch. This is an important point, as in the next term the Court will again review the issue in the case of a Christian wedding website designer in Colorado. Lower courts told the designer, Lorie Smith, that to avoid violating the state’s anti-discrimination law, she would be required to use her creative talents in the service of same-sex couples. Smith, who holds traditional religious beliefs regarding marriage, filed the suit.
Secondly, public school teachers and coaches do not give up their rights under the Constitution when they accept their jobs. It is true that the government, in its role as an employer, has more power to restrict the speech of its employees than it does to restrict the speech of other Americans; after all, government officials act on behalf of the government. But when an employee’s expression is outside of his official work duties, it is legally protected speech.
Americans for the Separation of Church and State , the anti-religious freedom group representing Bremerton, argued that Coach Kennedy could be silenced because he was still acting in his official capacity as a coach when he prayed after the games. The majority of the Court, along with fans who attended Bremerton High School football games, understand things differently: pre-game conversations and in-game training are government speech, as are instructions during the day. school, but Coach Kennedy’s prayer after the games are over is his own private expression.
“Simply put: Mr. Kennedy do not ‘owe their existence’ to Mr. Kennedy as a civil servant,” Gorsuch explained. “To do otherwise would be to treat religious expression as second-rate discourse and eviscerate this Court’s repeated promise that teachers do not waive their constitutional rights to free speech or expression at the school gate.”
Finally, the Court explained that a “natural reading” of the First Amendment suggests that freedom of expression and the free exercise and establishment clauses “have ‘complementary’, non-conflicting purposes where one clause will always prevail over the others”. The Court also reaffirmed that government-permitted religious expression is not necessarily government-endorsed religious expression. This might seem like a pretty simple idea. For years, however, school officials mistakenly thought that the establishment’s clause required them to silence any vestige of religious belief – and some of them were disturbingly enthusiastic about it.
The Court also quickly rejected it. Bremerton’s claim that he was concerned that his students might be coerced into uniting in prayer: “Mr. Kennedy didn’t even come close to crossing any imaginable line separating protected private expression from impermissible government coercion.”
It has been nearly seven years since head coach Joseph Kennedy joined the coaching staff. from Bremerton High School. Regardless of whether he returns to the football field this fall, his defense of prayer and the guarantees of the Constitution today produced a great victory that deserves to be celebrated.
© 2022 National Review. Published with permission. Original in English.