At his last game as the Bremerton High assistant football coach, Joseph Kennedy led a prayer at the 50-yard line that had spectators jumping over the fence to join him on the field. This was after the school district told him to stop holding public prayers and right before they fired him. Kennedy sued, arguing that the school district violated his First Amendment rights. In its 6-3 decision on June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed.
“The core question in Mr. Kennedy’s case, [his lawyers] said, was whether government employees give up their own rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion at the workplace,” the New York Times reported. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sotomayor said those employees do—Kennedy chose to work at Bremerton; the student athletes were required to attend.
If Kennedy wanted to continue to pray after games, the Bremerton School District told him, he was welcome to do so in a private space removed from players and the public. The tradition began in 2008, when Kennedy knelt silently in prayer following games. Students and opposing teams began to join him, and he was leading group prayers up to his termination in 2015.
In its majority opinion, delivered by Justice Gorsuch, the Court notes that there is no record of students experiencing coercion to participate in Kennedy’s prayer. This justification ignored Court precedent, according to the dissenters. Part of that precedent was decided in Lee v. Weisman, which acknowledged the implicit influence and impact of school messaging for young students. Another was a 2000 decision in which the Court deemed student-led prayer at high school football games unconstitutional.
“Tellingly,” Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, “none of this Court’s major cases involving school prayer concerned school practices that required students to do any more than listen silently to prayers, and some did not even formally require students to listen.”
The Court’s three-Justice liberal block see the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District ruling as an overextension of individual religious liberty. “Today, the Court once again weakens the backstop. It elevates one individual’s interest in personal religious exercise,” Sotomayor wrote, “over society’s interest in protecting the separation between church and state.”