Supreme Court Upholds Coach’s Right to Pray on the Football Field

The statue of justice Themis or Justitia, the blindfolded goddess of justice against a flag of the United States of America, as a legal concept

Supreme Court Upholds Coach’s Right to Pray on the Football Field

Jun 28, 2022

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In a decision that many see as further eroding the separation between church and state, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a high school violated its football coach’s First Amendment rights by prohibiting him from praying on the football field immediately following a game. The Court ruled that the coach’s private prayer constituted First Amendment protected speech rejecting the school district’s claim that it was constitutionally required to prohibit the coach from praying under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and because of concerns that the football players would feel coerced to join the prayer. The case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022), was a 6-3 decision.   

This case originated when former high school football coach, Joe Kennedy, was suspended from his job in 2015 for engaging in postgame prayers on the football fields’ 50-yard line following the team’s game. Players and community members occasionally joined Kennedy in a prayer circle, but players were not required to do so. The school district counseled Kennedy on a couple of occasions not to pray on the field, to cease any inspirational religious speeches during the prayer, and to stop praying in the locker room before and after games. Kennedy complied with the above directives except for his own private prayer on the field after the game. In three home games since Kennedy received the school’s directive, no players joined Kennedy during his prayer, although some players from the other team and community members did join. The school district’s decision to suspend the coach for continuing to pray was based upon its belief that Kennedy’s prayers violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against the promotion of religion by government officials. The school district believed that if it allowed Kennedy to pray on the football field immediately after the game with several students and community members present, it would be viewed as endorsing religion. Additionally, the school district and certain community members were concerned that Kennedy’s leadership position posed a threat to the school district’s minority-faith students, or those with no faith at all, by placing pressure on students to join something they did not fundamentally agree with.

In first determining that Kennedy’s speech was protected by the First Amendment, the Court stated that Kennedy’s prayers were made in his individual capacity as a private citizen, not in his capacity as an employee of the school district. In reaching this determination, the Court noted that during the postgame period, coaches were free to attend to personal matters, including checking sports scores on their phones and greeting family and friends in the stands. The Court additionally noted that the speech itself (the prayer) is not speech that would ordinarily be within the scope of Kennedy’s duties as a coach. The Court acknowledged but ultimately rejected the school district’s argument that Kennedy remained an on-duty role model even after the football game, stating “this argument commits the error of positing an excessively broad job description by treating everything teachers and coaches say in the workplace as government speech subject to government control.” According to the Court, a First Amendment Establishment Clause violation does not automatically follow where a public school “fails to censor” private religious speech, nor does the Establishment Clause “compel the government to purge from the public sphere” anything that an objective observer could reasonably infer to be religious.

The Court also emphasized that the school district did not present evidence that any of its football players felt compelled to join Kennedy in his postgame prayers. The Court stated that the school district was wrong in believing it had to stop the coach from praying on the field to avoid violating the First Amendment’s prohibition against establishing or endorsing religion.   This decision requires governmental entities to carefully review their policies and practices regarding employee religious speech and expression. The Court’s decision does provide some helpful guidance and tips for employers in addressing religious speech and expression in the workplace. Please contact a Robbins Schwartz attorney if you have any questions related to the Supreme Court’s ruling in this case and its applicability.