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BREAKING: Supreme Court upholds Christian coach's right to pray at games

"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."

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Libby Emmons Brooklyn NY
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The Supreme Court on Monday issued a ruling upholding the First Amendment right of free speech with regard to prayer. The Court ruled in favor of a high school football coach who was told he was not to pray on the field post-game in the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.

The 6-3 ruling determined that the school district in 2015 violated the coach's rights to free speech when they prohibited him from praying on the field, and that coach subsequently lost his job over the matter. The majority opinion was written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, along with Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Amy Coney Barrett. Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the opinion, except as regards one section.

Coach Joseph Kennedy had lost his job as a coach because he would kneel in midfield post-games to offer a prayer, usually about 30 seconds. The firing was because the Bremerton School District believed that, to allow Kennedy to pray, would indicate that they were endorsing his religious beliefs. However, Gorsuch wrote, "That reasoning was misguided. Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s."

While at first Kennedy offered the prayer on his own, over time, student players joined him. When the athletes asked if they could join him, Kennedy told them "this is a free country, you can do what you want." And so they did. Kennedy served at the school for seven years before there was any issue or complaint with either his prayers on the field, or prayers in the locker room, which had been part of school culture.

The letter to Kennedy included statements from the school that Kennedy had violated the "Establishment Clause." Gorsuch writes that "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."

After Kennedy received the letter, he complied with its terms, which included no longer referencing his religious beliefs in motivational speeches, no longer offering locker-room prayer, and giving up the midfield, post-game prayers. However, for Kennedy, this became very difficult, and he felt that he had "broken his commitment to God" in giving up the practice. He pushed back against the school on this restriction, and asked to be allowed to offer his own prayer.

The school declined to make allowances, saying that Kennedy could not appear to endorse prayer while on duty as a coach paid by the school district. Kennedy continued to pray, often waiting until the players were engaged in something else, or off the field. But players continued to join him in prayer.

The school wanted Kennedy to hide his faith, but the Court declared this to be a violation.

"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," Gorsuch maintained.

"The contested exercise before us does not involve leading prayers with the team or before any other captive audience. Mr. Kennedy’s 'religious beliefs do not require [him] to lead any prayer . . . involving students.' ... At the District’s request, he voluntarily discontinued the school tradition of locker-room prayers and his postgame religious talks to students. The District disciplined him only for his decision to persist in praying quietly without his players after three games in October 2015," the opinion reads.

"..in forbidding Mr. Kennedy’s brief prayer, the District failed to act pursuant to a neutral and generally applicable rule. A government policy will not qualify as neutral if it is 'specifically directed at . . . religious practice,'" writes Gorsuch.

"When it comes to Mr. Kennedy’s free speech claim, our precedents remind us that the First Amendment’s protections extend to “teachers and students,” neither of whom 'shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,'" the opinion reads, citing Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist. and Lane v. Franks.

"Of course, none of this means the speech rights of public school employees are so boundless that they may deliver any message to anyone anytime they wish. In addition to being private citizens, teachers and coaches are also government employees paid in part to speak on the government’s behalf and convey its intended messages."

After testing Kennedy's speech to discover whether or not his prayers were made while executing his government responsibilities as a high school football coach, Gorsuch determined that no, he was not, in free speech terms, bound during the post-game period to act in his official capacity.

"...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...

"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 ... Simply put: Mr. Kennedy’s prayers did not 'ow[e their] existence' to Mr. Kennedy’s responsibilities as a public employee...

"The timing and circumstances of Mr. Kennedy’s prayers confirm the point. During the postgame period when these prayers occurred, coaches were free to attend briefly to personal matters—everything from checking sports scores on their phones to greeting friends and family in the stands."

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan dissented, arguing that the facts of the case show that Kennedy was actively leading prayer, despite his contentions that the was not.

"This case is about whether a public school must permit a school official to kneel, bow his head, and say a prayer at the center of a school event. The Constitution does not authorize, let alone require, public schools to embrace this conduct," they wrote, citing Engel v. Vitale, "this Court consistently has recognized that school officials leading prayer is constitutionally impermissible. Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents, as embodied in both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment."

This is a breaking story and will be updated.

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