The Supreme Court today (June 27) ruled in favor of a Washington state high school football coach who left his job after school officials demanded he stop praying on the field after games.
The court ruled 6–3 in favor of Joe Kennedy, an 18-year Marine veteran and assistant coach for the Bremerton High School varsity football team, who for years prayed on the 50-yard line at the end of games.
As students began to join him, the school district expressed concerns that Kennedy’s prayers would be seen as a violation of students’ religious freedom rights. Kennedy stopped leading students in prayer on the field and in the locker room, but continued to pray on the field himself. When Kennedy and the school could not agree on the coach’s right to do so, Kennedy voluntarily resigned his position but challenged the school’s policy.
‘Respect for religious expressions’
Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch said, “Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic.
“Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance, based on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech.
“The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination,” Gorsuch wrote.
Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the decision is a religious expression victory for teachers and coaches to privately express their deeply-held beliefs while working for schools.
“As any Christian knows, our faith is deeply personal and rightly shapes every aspect of our lives,” Leatherwood said in a statement. “We live out our faith in any number of ways, both privately and publicly. Today’s case centered on the latter, and the Supreme Court rightly determined that an individual employed by a school does not forfeit his or her constitutional right to free expression simply by entering ‘the schoolhouse gate’ or, as it were in this case, the field of play.
‘Nation’s first freedom’
“Moreover, today’s decision reaffirms another aspect of constitutional law: our First Amendment rights travel together. We, and many others, have long held that religious liberty is our nation’s first freedom and that it bolsters and strengthens other foundational rights. The Court today strengthened this perspective by writing that the clauses of free expression, establishment and free speech are all complementary. If it were not already clear enough, this Court views religious liberty as a bedrock right in our free republic.”
Today’s Supreme Court decision is the latest of several rulings for religious plaintiffs. Last week, the court also ruled that Maine cannot exempt religious schools from a program that offers tuition aid for students attending private schools.
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