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Praying Coach Vindicated at SCOTUS in Another Big Religious Freedom Win

Praying Coach Vindicated at SCOTUS in Another Big Religious Freedom Win

Gorsuch for the 6-3 Majority: “Joseph Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach because he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet prayer of thanks…. . And the only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisal rested on amistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”

As this Supreme Court term comes to a close, we have another big religious freedom win.

Previously, we covered the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts in the Maine school funding case, Religious Liberty Win – Supreme Court Strikes Maine Law That Funded Secular But Not Religious Private Education. The principle reiterated there is a now-common theme — one we saw in the covid lockdown cases — that for similarly situated activities, government cannot discriminate against religious groups or expression.

Maine’s “nonsectarian” requirement for its otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Regardless of how the benefit and restriction are described, the program operates to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Today brought another religious freedom win, in the context of expressions of speech at school sporting events. In a majority Opinion by Justice Neil Gorsuch, who filled the seat of his mentor Anonin Scalia (see featured image), a school was found to have violated the free speech and religious freedom rights of a coach who prayed on the field:

Joseph Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach because he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet prayer of thanks. Mr. Kennedy prayed during a period when school employees were free to speak with a friend, call for a reservation at a restaurant, check email, or attend to other personal matters. He offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied. Still, the Bremerton School District disciplined him anyway. It did so because it thought anything less could lead a reasonable observer to conclude (mistakenly) that it endorsed Mr. Kennedy’s religious beliefs. That reasoning was misguided. Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor. The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.

Here are the key points from the Gorsuch Opinion:

Now before us, Mr. Kennedy renews his argument that the District’s conduct violated both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. These Clauses work in tandem. Where the Free Exercise Clause protects religious exercises, whether communicative or not, the Free Speech Clause provides overlapping protection for expressive religious activities. See, e.g., Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U. S. 263, 269, n. 6 (1981); Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U. S. 819, 841 (1995). That the First Amendment doubly protects religious speech is no accident. It is a natural outgrowth of the framers’ distrust of government attempts to regulate religion and suppress dissent….

Under this Court’s precedents, a plaintiff may carry the burden of proving a free exercise violation in various ways, including by showing that a government entity has burdened his sincere religious practice pursuant to a policy that is not “neutral” or “generally applicable.” Id., at 879–881. Should a plaintiff make a showing like that, this Court will find a First Amendment violation unless the government can satisfy “strict scrutiny” by demonstrating its course was justified by a compelling state interest and was narrowly tailored in pursuit of that interest. Lukumi, 508 U. S., at 546.1

That Mr. Kennedy has discharged his burdens is effectively undisputed. No one questions that he seeks to engage in a sincerely motivated religious exercise. The exercise in question involves, as Mr. Kennedy has put it, giving “thanks through prayer” briefly and by himself “on the playing field” at the conclusion of each game he coaches. App. 168, 171. Mr. Kennedy has indicated repeatedly that he is willing to “wai[t] until the game is over and the players have left the field” to “wal[k] to mid-field to say [his] short, private, personal prayer.” Id., at 69; see also id., at 280, 282. The contested exercise before us does not involve leading prayers with the team or before any other captive audience….

In this case, the District’s challenged policies were neither neutral nor generally applicable. By its own admission, the District sought to restrict Mr. Kennedy’s actions at least in part because of their religious character….

Thus, any sort of postgame supervisory requirement was not applied in an evenhanded, across-the-board way….

Applying these lessons here, it seems clear to us that Mr. Kennedy has demonstrated that his speech was private speech, not government speech. When Mr. Kennedy uttered the three prayers that resulted in his suspension, he was not engaged in speech “ordinarily within the scope” of his duties as a coach. Lane, 573 U. S., at 240. He did not speak pursuant to government policy. He was not seeking to convey a government-created message. He was not instructing players, discussing strategy, encouraging better on-field performance, or engaged in any other speech the District paid him to produce as a coach….

Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic—whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head. Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. And the only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisal rested on a mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination. Mr. Kennedy is entitled to summary judgment on his First Amendment claims. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is Reversed.

You’ll never guess the reaction. No, seriously, you won’t.

[Featured Image: Antonin Scalia and Neil Gorsuch]


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Anyone want to hazard a guess how this would have gone with Clinton appointed Justices?

As a Washingtonion- I have to point out that this is how bad it has gotten here… you need a SCOTUS ruling in order to pray and not lose your job.

Glad it went the right way, but the fact remains, this was an actual contest.

So when I see those junkies sawing off those woke ass Prius Exhausts, I just want to toss them an extra blade for the saws-all. They’re doing God’s work IMO.

Two versions of the post game prayers
1) conservative articles point out kennedy prayed alone
2) sotomayer ‘ dissent said he prayed with several students (not all)

Any insight on which is correct factually.

FWIW, I agree with the opinion.

    Jazzizhep in reply to Joe-dallas. | June 27, 2022 at 4:53 pm

    As Colonel Travis points out players joined him. I will add in typical Sotomayor form she decided to include something that wasn’t actually a part of the suit. He was fired because the district determined he was violating the establishment of religion clause. He was not fired because students joined him.

      Milhouse in reply to Jazzizhep. | June 27, 2022 at 5:22 pm

      No, that’s not an honest way of putting it. The fact that students chose to join him did bring it closer to the line of an establishment clause violation (assuming for the moment that the establishment clause is incorporated, as everyone but Clarence Thomas maintains). Had he invited the whole team to join him, and had they all or most of them done so, that would probably have crossed the line.

      The key fact here is that he didn’t. He decided to pray on his own time, and some but not all students decided, entirely on their own, to join him. Thus there was no impression given to the students that this was somehow a school activity in which they were expected to join. And therefore no establishment.

        Capitalist-Dad in reply to Milhouse. | June 28, 2022 at 12:46 pm

        Nonsense. The coach’s intent was private. No one contends this was anything except others joining the coach in prayer of their own volition and not at his invitation or insistence. That is not an ESTABLISHMENT of religion. SCOTUS has been full of garbage on establishment from the inception of its use by liberals to crush public displays of (mostly) Christian beliefs. Our Founders were exponentially more intelligent, recognizing ESTABLISHMENT to mean designating the Anglican Church as the official state religion, religious tests to hold public office, state collected taxes that went to the Anglican Church, and similar laws favoring the official state religion. If the original plaintiff, an atheist, is offended by merely see the free exercise of religion, it sucks to be him, he is not entitled to a heckler’s veto over others’ natural rights, and he can hurry away from what he considers a dreaded scene.

      Colonel Travis in reply to Jazzizhep. | June 27, 2022 at 6:12 pm

      The school did fire him because students were with him. This is from a press release from the school in 2015 (he was not fired at this point but the reason didn’t change):

      “The prayer sessions with students clearly violated the Establishment Clause. The District cannot allow students’ rights to be violated simply because none of them complain. Embedded in the federal court precedent discussed above is the reasonable expectation that students will feel coerced to go along with religious activity that is led or endorsed by their teachers and coaches. It is very likely that over the years, players have joined in these activities because to do otherwise would mean potentially alienating themselves from their team, and possibly their coaches. The District has a fundamental obligation to protect the rights of all of its students.”

    geronl in reply to Joe-dallas. | June 27, 2022 at 7:21 pm

    As long as it is completely voluntary for the player and the coach too, it should be fine. The idea it can only happen if all the players take part is insane.

Good to hear. The fact that a simple expression of faith would eventually have to end up before the SC is yet another demonstration of the malevolent and hateful nature of the left.

    irv in reply to SField. | June 27, 2022 at 6:02 pm

    Yes. While the district claimed to have been acting to avoid the perception of approving of what he did, their reaction was so far over the top – so inappropriate for the stated purpose – it seems more likely they were angry at an overt display of faith.

The Gentle Grizzly | June 27, 2022 at 4:48 pm

As long as no student was compelled or pressured to join in I’m fine with what he did, and the decision.

And at least THIS Joseph Kennedy didn’t order anyone be given a lobotomy.

henrybowman | June 27, 2022 at 4:49 pm

“Someone please make sure that conservatives realize that they could be praying to Satan and the Supreme Court just protected it”

Hey, just remember later, YOU brought up NFL Halftimes — we didn’t.

E Howard Hunt | June 27, 2022 at 5:06 pm

I am sure the wise Latina would have been fine with his performing a midfield abortion or sex change surgery. After watching Senator Graham’s performance at her confirmation hearing, I must now turn off the TV when he appears or else fall into a vomiting fit.

Steven Brizel | June 27, 2022 at 5:25 pm

Justice Gorsuch’s majority opinion is magnificent. The dissent is an exercise in legal gymnastics looking for some means to justify the forbidding of any religious values in a public school or insinuating that the coach was proselyting while presumably supporting the presence of drag queens and Marxist brainwashing such as .CRT., gender fluidity and climate change

texansamurai | June 27, 2022 at 7:09 pm

though they probably lack the balls to do it, the members of the school district board should apologize to this man–when you’re wrong, men(and women) of honor admit it

As we chitchat about this… remember that the Senate has approved a SCOTUS justice, in waiting. So this “generic” justice would be moved into an empty slot should ANY vacancy open. If you insist that it was ONLY Breyer then more power to you for wishful thinking. The Left can think “Perlican Brief” because “by any means” is in their vocabulary, The only thing holding back is what would be the blowback from this. The blowback would not come from the RINO/GOPe.

    Andy in reply to alaskabob. | June 27, 2022 at 11:47 pm

    So they will be cajoling their violent followers to assassinate one of the conservatives before January?

    I’m as serious as a heart attack on the depths they will sink to at this juncture.

    lichau in reply to alaskabob. | June 28, 2022 at 8:18 am

    Watch out for “lone nuts”.

      alaskabob in reply to lichau. | June 28, 2022 at 11:49 am

      I cannot see any difference between the official Dem Party and its numerous “direct action” street thug groups. There are no ideological degrees of separation….just plausible deniability. There has been a coup targeted against the presidency, A coup against legislators. Now one against the judiciary.. This last week has been a huge disruption of the Long March V2.0.

Steven Brizel | June 28, 2022 at 9:07 am

This is a great decision. The only people who are outraged by the result are those who can’t comprehend or have contempt for anyone who believes in standing before God in prayer