May 20, 2024

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a high school football coach had a constitutional right to pray at the 50-yard line after his team’s games.

The vote was 6 to 3, with the court’s three liberal members in dissent.

The case pitted the rights of government workers to free speech and the free exercise of their faith against the Constitution’s prohibition of government endorsement of religion and the ability of public employers to regulate speech in the workplace. The decision was in tension with decades of Supreme Court precedents that forbade pressuring students to participate in religious activities.

The case concerned Joseph Kennedy, an assistant coach at a public high school in Bremerton, Wash., near Seattle. For eight years, Mr. Kennedy routinely offered prayers after games, with students often joining him. He also led and participated in prayers in the locker room, a practice he later abandoned and did not defend in the Supreme Court.

In 2015, after an opposing coach told the principal at Mr. Kennedy’s school that he thought it was “pretty cool” that Mr. Kennedy was allowed to pray on the field, the school board instructed Mr. Kennedy not to pray if it interfered with his duties or involved students. The two sides disagreed about whether Mr. Kennedy complied.

A school official recommended that the coach’s contract not be renewed for the 2016 season, and Mr. Kennedy did not reapply for the position.

The two sides offered starkly different accounts of what had happened in Mr. Kennedy’s final months, complicating the Supreme Court’s task. Mr. Kennedy said he sought only to offer a brief, silent and solitary prayer little different from saying grace before a meal in the school cafeteria. The school board responded that the public nature of his prayers and his stature as a leader and role model meant that students felt forced to participate, whatever their religion and whether they wanted to or not.

Over the last 60 years, the Supreme Court has rejected prayer in public schools, at least when it was officially required or part of a formal ceremony like a high school graduation. As recently as 2000, the court ruled that organized prayers led by students at high school football games violated the First Amendment’s prohibition of government establishment of religion.

“The delivery of a pregame prayer has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.

Mr. Kennedy’s lawyers said those school prayer precedents were not relevant because they involved government speech. The core question in Mr. Kennedy’s case, they said, was whether government employees give up their own rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion at the workplace.

The school district, its lawyers responded, was entitled to require Mr. Kennedy to stop praying as he had. “Regardless of whether Kennedy’s very public speech was official, the district could regulate it,” the school district’s Supreme Court brief said. “His prayer practice wrested control from the district over the district’s own events, interfered with students’ religious freedom and subjected the district to substantial litigation risks.”

The school district noted that a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, had criticized what he called “a deceitful narrative” created by Mr. Kennedy’s lawyers.

Mr. Kennedy was never disciplined for offering silent, private prayers, the judge, Milan D. Smith Jr., wrote last year. Instead, the judge wrote of one game, Mr. Kennedy “prayed out loud in the middle of the football field” just after it finished, “surrounded by players, members of the opposing team, parents, a local politician and members of the news media with television cameras recording the event, all of whom had been advised of Kennedy’s intended actions through the local news and social media.”

When the Supreme Court refused to hear an earlier appeal in the case in 2019, four justices expressed qualms about how Mr. Kennedy had been treated.

“The Ninth Circuit’s understanding of the free speech rights of public-school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote at the time, adding that the justices should wait for more information about “important unresolved factual questions.” He was joined by Justices Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas.

After further proceedings, the Ninth Circuit again ruled for the school board. This time, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, No. 21-418.

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