First Amendment rights of praying football coach violated: Is SCOTUS right?
- On June 27, 2022, the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 vote that high school football coach Joseph Kennedy’s First Amendment rights were violated by Bremerton School District for firing him for praying in public after school games. Justice Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion that “Kennedy’s private religious exercise did not come close to crossing any line one might imagine separating protected private expression from impermissible government coercion,” and “learning how to tolerate speech or prayer of all kinds is 'part of learning how to live in a pluralistic society,' a trait of character essential to 'a tolerant citizenry.''
- An October 2021 Pew Research Center poll found that 54% of Americans think the federal government should enforce separation of church and state while 19% disagree.
- In the Engel v. Vitale case, the Supreme Court ruled that voluntary prayer was unconstitutional in public schools as a violation of the First Amendment on June 25, 1962.
- The First Amendment of the US Constitution reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
While many erroneously understand the idea of separation of church and state to mean barring religious expression in public life, that simply misunderstands the First Amendment. The 'separation of church and state' (explicitly written nowhere in the Constitution) references the limitations placed on American government from establishing or favoring a state religion, not limiting individual religious expression.
Bremerton School District clearly violated Coach Joseph Kennedy's individual religious rights by firing him for praying on the football field after games. Americans should be able to pray in public without fear of losing their jobs as religious freedom is an inalienable right and foundational part of our democracy.
As Justice Gorsuch explained in the majority opinion, '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.' This is more than defending praying at a field; it's about upholding the First Amendment. If Kennedy's religious expression had not been deemed protected by SCOTUS, even as the constitutional text clearly states it, America would come one step closer to losing its role as a religious refuge.
The notion that Kennedy cannot pray exemplifies a problematic ideological view that America's public-school employees are only agents of state expression, speaking state-approved words, implying they have no individual freedom of speech or expression. This case is a reminder that teachers do not forfeit all their first amendment rights when they accept employment. Freedom of speech goes hand in hand with Americans' fundamental religious rights. To keep the sanctity of our democracy, we should remember that religious freedom means freedom of religion—not freedom from it.
By allowing former Washington state high school football coach Joe Kennedy to pray on the field after games, the Supreme Court is insisting upon a gray area this nation has attempted to avoid since its inception. Although the Constitution acknowledges the 'free exercise' of religion shall not be prohibited, the dissenting opinion, written by Justice Sotomayor, argued the court's ruling 'elevates one individual's interest in personal religious exercise [...] over society's interest in protecting the separation between church and state, eroding the protections for religious liberty for all.'
While the Constitution encourages freedom of religion, it also indicates no state-sponsored coercion of any one faith is allowed, including the unwilling religious indoctrination of somebody while at a public establishment. Although the players he coached never pushed back publicly, they may have felt inclined to comply with the prayer so not to lose their position on the team or be judged by fellow teammates. Kennedy explained the prayer was just 'the right thing to do,' possibly leading his players to think it would best benefit them to join in. But offering consistent prayer time after games potentially alienated any players who decided to abstain.
This establishment clause prohibits the government from preferring religion over non-religion or one religion over another. Kennedy practiced his prayer around game time for seven years before his players began feeling inclined to join him around 2015. It’s arguable that this ruling would not have occurred had Kennedy been Muslim or Jewish. Somebody of another religion would have been stopped much earlier and not received such a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court. This SCOTUS decision has managed to blur the lines between the separation of church and state as it will undoubtedly permit more religious expression to occur in public environments.