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On The Front Lines

Religious Freedom Victory: U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Public School Coach’s Right To Silently Pray on the Field After Football Games

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment protects a public high school coach’s right to kneel and silently pray on the school’s football field after a game. The 6-3 ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District comes more than a decade after The Rutherford Institute first asked the Court to safeguard the right of another high school football coach, Marcus Borden, to bow his head and take a knee during a student-led prayer. In this case, Coach Joseph Kennedy was prohibited from taking a knee and offering up a silent prayer on the field after a game because officials feared his actions could be misinterpreted as an endorsement of religion by the school. Finding that Coach Kennedy’s post-game prayer was personal or private speech—not government speech—the Supreme Court concluded that the Free Exercise of Religion Clause and the Free Speech Clause “work in tandem” to provide “overlapping protection for expressive religious activities” so that the First Amendment “doubly protects religious speech.”

The Supreme Court’s opinion and the amicus brief in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District are available at www.rutherford.org. Affiliate attorney Christopher F. Moriarty assisted in advancing the First Amendment arguments in the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District brief.

“Where do First Amendment freedoms end and government censorship begin on the football field? Whether one is taking a knee in silent protest of police brutality or taking a knee in silent prayer, both should be protected by the Constitution,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “For too long, the forces of political correctness have been allowed to distort the spirit and meaning of the First Amendment, turning the expressive right to freedom of religion into an oppressive act of state-sanctioned censorship.”

In 2008, Joseph Kennedy, a retired Marine and devout Christian, began working as a football coach for Bremerton High School in Washington. After each game, Kennedy took a knee at the 50-yard line and offered up a brief, silent prayer for his players’ safety, what the players accomplished, and the opportunity to be a part of their lives. The practice continued for years without raising any red flags. However, in September 2015, the superintendent sent Kennedy a letter informing him that any prayer must be physically separate from any student activity and that students could not join him. Kennedy persisted in taking a knee in silent prayer after football games and did not prohibit students from joining him if they wished to do so. The school district placed Kennedy on administrative leave, with the head coach recommending that he not be rehired due to failing to follow district policy by visibly praying on the field. Both the district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently upheld the school district’s actions, ruling that they were justified in prohibiting Kennedy from silently praying after games on the field in view of others due to the risk that someone might think the school was endorsing a religion. Weighing in on the matter before the U.S. Supreme Court, The Rutherford Institute argued for the courts to better distinguish between what constitutes a perceived endorsement of religion by a school official in violation of the Establishment Clause versus a personal, private expression of faith as protected by the Free Exercise Clause. The Court agreed that the government cannot use the Establishment Clause to suppress religious liberty and give preference to secular activity.

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.


Case History

March 04, 2022 • Where Does Free Speech End and Government Censorship Begin on the Football Field? School Bans Coach From Silently Praying After Games 

March 03, 2009 • U.S. Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Case of Football Coach Prohibited from Bowing Head During Team's Pre-Game Prayer, Lets Stand Prayer Ban

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