Supreme Court to hear case involving high school football coach’s post-game prayer on the field

by | Jan 20, 2022

On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal in the long-running legal dispute over an assistant high school football coach praying on the field following games in Washington state.

Back in 2015, the Bremerton School District warned Coach Joseph Kennedy that his practice of kneeling and praying at the 50-yard line violated the Establishment Clause, and the district asked him to stop. When he refused, the school district suspended him, citing the “degree of coercion” students would feel to participate in religious activities led or endorsed by their coach.

In 2017, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the actions of the school district did not violate Kennedy’s free speech rights under the First Amendment, a decision the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review in 2019. At the time, four justices emphasized that the case before them was solely a free speech case, and that Kennedy’s free exercise of religion claims were still alive. A district court in 2020 dismissed those religious freedom claims as well, noting that the coach’s desire to express his religious beliefs “must give way” to the school district’s need to restrict expression that violates the Establishment Clause. The 9th Circuit affirmed that ruling in March of 2021. Now, the Supreme Court will review the case, with oral arguments expected this spring.

The case will likely focus the Court’s attention on its 2000 ruling in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. There the Court found unconstitutional a Texas high school’s practice of allowing student-led prayer before each football game over the loudspeaker. Such speech, a 6-3 majority ruled, is not private speech protected by the First Amendment but is instead government-authorized speech taking place on school property during a school-sponsored event.

It is no secret that the makeup of the Court has changed since the last time this matter was before the justices. Still, the Santa Fe ruling remains important precedent, which protects the rights of all students and community members gathering at quintessential school-sponsored events like high school football games. BJC authored a brief in 2000 urging the Court in Santa Fe to find the prayer policy unconstitutional because of the coercive effect it has on students and others to participate in religious activity; BJC also joined a brief in this case filed with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, siding with the Bremerton School District.

As BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler tweeted on Friday, BJC “has a long history of protecting religious freedom in the public schools, which includes opposing government-led religious exercises. We look forward to continuing to advocate for religious freedom for ALL as the case comes to #SCOTUS.”

Stay tuned.