Jesus, Take the… Field? U.S. Supreme Court Protects High School Coach’s Right to Pray After Games

The rules for religion in public schools shifted recently when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of the “praying coach,” permitting a public school employee to publicly pray during his work day. Kennedy v Bremerton Sch Dist, Docket No 21-418 (June 27, 2022). The Court found that the school violated the coach’s Free Speech and Free Exercise constitutional rights when it sanctioned him for kneeling and praying at the 50-yard line after high school football games.

Joseph Kennedy was a JV football coach at Bremerton (Washington) High School. Kennedy kneeled and prayed at the 50-yard line immediately after football games. At first, he prayed alone; over time, some of his players joined him. When school officials learned of Kennedy’s prayer practice, about eight years after it started, it sent a letter to him asking that he cease his prayer-related activities at school. In response, the coach’s attorney told school officials that Kennedy was “compelled” to pray by his “sincerely held religious beliefs” and asked that he be allowed to continue to do so. The school district believed that the coach’s post-game prayer on the field exposed it to potential liability under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits governmental entities from establishing or seemingly endorsing or promoting religion. School officials reiterated the directive that Kennedy could not engage in any “overt action” that appears to endorse prayer while he was on duty as a district-paid coach.

Kennedy defied the school’s directive and contin­ued to pray at midfield after football games. As word spread, players from the opposing team and commu­nity members joined him. After the third week of Kennedy’s post-game prayer in defiance of the school district’s directive, he was placed on paid administra­tive leave. The school district later gave him a poor performance evaluation and advised against rehiring him.

After years of litigation and lower court opinions in favor of the school, the Supreme Court (6-3) reversed the lower court decisions, finding in Kennedy’s favor.

Free Exercise

A majority of the Justices decided that the school district violated the Free Exercise Clause, which protects citizens’ right to practice their religion as they please as long as they do not violate public morals or a compelling government interest. There was no dispute that Kennedy’s prayer was motivated by sincerely held religious beliefs, and the Court’s majority concluded that Kennedy’s prayer did not involve student athletes or any other “captive audience.” The majority found that the school district did not act based on any neutral and generally applicable rule, as the school district did not try to control the post-game activities of other coaches who were free during the post-game moments to check their phones or chat with family or friends.

Free Speech

The Court ruled that the school district also violated Kennedy’s Free Speech rights. The Court deter­mined that Kennedy’s post-game prayers were private – not government – speech because they prayers were not speech ordinarily within the scope of his coaching duties and did not convey a school district message. Although Kennedy was on duty when he prayed, the Court held that not all speech of public school employees, even in the workplace, is government speech subject to government control. As examples of religious free speech at school, the Court mentioned a Muslim teacher wearing a headscarf in the classroom or a Christian aide praying quietly over a meal in the cafeteria.

If a public school employee observes their religion during work hours, a school must consider the time and manner of that observance to determine if it is private speech or government speech before any restrictions are imposed. Walking the line between church and state undoubtedly will be even more challenging for schools on now further unsettled legal terrain. If your school encounters a “praying coach” or any other situation where an employee seeks to practice their religion at school, contact a Thrun attorney before taking action.