Supreme Court sides with former Bremerton, Wash., high school football coach, ruling he has Constitutional right to pray on field

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday sided with a Washington state football coach who wanted to kneel and pray on the field after games.

The court ruled 6-3 on ideological grounds in favor of Joseph Kennedy, an assistant coach on the Bremerton High School varsity football team and head coach of the junior varsity team for seven years.

For nearly a decade, Kennedy led post-game prayers, often joined by students. Kennedy said he made a pledge to God to take a knee right in midfield and say a quick prayer after every game. Concerned about being sued for violating students’ religious freedom, public school officials in Bremerton, Washington, asked him to stop public prayer, but he refused. Officials placed Kennedy on furlough, and his contract was not renewed in 2015.

Kennedy sued, and with the support of conservative activists, his case ended up in the Supreme Court.

During a hearing, the three more liberal members of the court compared Kennedy’s prayers to the hypothetical prayers of other school officials that would not be permissible. Meanwhile, members of the court’s six-member conservative majority asked questions comparing Kennedy’s prayers to other, non-religious acts.

Judge Clarence Thomas asked how the school district would react if the coach kneeled on the field during the national anthem in “moral opposition to racism” instead of kneeling in prayer.

On Monday, the judges ruled that the coach’s prayer was protected by the First Amendment.

“The Constitution and the best of our traditions advise mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and repression, of both religious and non-religious views,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority.

The case forced the judges to wrestle with how to balance the religious and freedom of expression rights of teachers and coaches with the rights of students not to feel pressured to participate in religious practices. The result could increase the acceptance of some religious practices in the public school environment.

“It’s just so great. All I ever wanted was to be back on the field with my boys,” Kennedy said in response to Monday’s comment. “I am incredibly grateful to the Supreme Court, my amazing legal team and everyone who has supported us. I thank God for hearing our prayers and supporting my family through this long struggle.”

The decision is also the latest in a series of Supreme Court rulings for religious plaintiffs. In another recent example, the court ruled that Maine cannot exclude religious schools from a program that offers grants for private education, a decision that could give religious organizations easier access to taxpayer money.

ESPN’s Michael Fletcher contributed to this report and information from The Associated Press was used in this report. Supreme Court sides with former Bremerton, Wash., high school football coach, ruling he has Constitutional right to pray on field

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