Court rules First Amendment protects public-school employee’s right to pray on football field after a game
by Jess Bravin, The Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2022
WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court, siding with a football coach who knelt in prayer at the 50-yard line, ruled 6-3 that a school district cannot bar him from publicly exercising his faith on the field after the game, continuing a line of decisions lowering the wall between church and state.
School officials in Bremerton, Wash., argued that the coach, Joe Kennedy, commandeered the government-owned field to promote his faith to fans and students after the game, implicitly putting the district’s imprimatur on his brand of Christianity.
Mr. Kennedy, a Marine Corps veteran who himself attended Bremerton High, said his midfield devotions were inspired by an evangelical movie about a football coach at a religious school who turns around a losing team by stressing faith in God. He said his personal expressions of thanksgiving harmed no one and that he treated players fairly whether they joined him in prayer or not.
After the district superintendent said the postgame prayers violated school policy, Mr. Kennedy took his cause to the media, causing a stir that has divided Bremerton for years and brought in national advocacy groups on both sides.
The First Liberty Institute of Plano, Texas, filed suit on behalf of Mr. Kennedy, while Americans United for Separation of Church and State, based in Washington, D.C., stepped in to represent the Bremerton School District. Dozens of other organizations and individuals have filed friend-of-the-court briefs, indicating the case’s potential significance in resetting the rules for religious activity by government and public-school employees during work hours.
According to court papers, Mr. Kennedy would recite such prayers as, “Lord, I lift these guys up for what they just did on the field. They battled for 48 minutes and even though they came here as rivals, they can leave here as friends. It doesn’t matter what our beliefs are—we believe in our team and we believe in each other.”
Some students occasionally joined Mr. Kennedy’s devotionals. The coach says he never directed them to do so, but the school principal testified that a parent complained that his son “felt compelled to participate.” The student, an atheist, took part in the ritual because “he felt he wouldn’t get to play as much if he didn’t participate.”
In a 2000 decision, the court found unconstitutional a Texas school-district policy where students could elect one of their own to offer prayers before varsity football games. A 1992 ruling threw out Rhode Island’s practice of inviting clergy to pray at public-school graduations. Those cases followed landmark decisions from the early 1960s finding unconstitutional requirements that public school students recite Bible verses or a state-approved prayer to open the school day.
Such decisions drew from the First Amendment provision forbidding an official “establishment of religion.” In recent years, however, the court’s more conservative majority has given greater weight to the companion clause protecting “free exercise” of religion, finding that regulations enforceable against secular objectors, such as indoor occupancy limits imposed by public-health officials to fight Covid-19, must give way when religious grounds are invoked for an exception.