By a 6-3 vote on Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that the Bremerton, Washington School District violated the rights of high school football coach Joseph Kennedy—both to the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech—when it suspended him in 2015 for his practice of saying a private prayer at the 50-yard line after games.
Justice Gorsuch, who wrote the majority opinion, stated that “the Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.”
The six justices in the majority concurred that Kennedy’s actions did not create an unconstitutional “establishment of religion” because his prayers were clearly his own private actions and it was also clear that they were not endorsed in any way by the school district.
The decision affirms the rights of public employees to practice their religion.
The dissenting justices disputed the factual claims that Kennedy’s prayers were entirely private, citing instances of media appearances Kennedy made publicizing his plans to pray at the 50-yard line. They also pointed out that several players said that they participated in the prayers solely to avoid separating themselves from the rest of the team. The dissent did not disagree that private prayer by a coach would be permissible, but saw the facts of the case differently.
The decision affirms the rights of public employees to practice their religion in the context of their job, provided that it does not interfere with the rights of others.