Iowans praise and condemn SCOTUS ruling on prayer by school coach

By: - June 27, 2022 3:05 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court found that former Bremerton, Wash., high school assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, shown here in a file photo from April 2022, had a right to pray publicly on the football field after games. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that a former Washington state football coach at a public high school had a constitutional right to lead post-game prayers at midfield.

The 6-3 ruling favored former coach Joseph Kennedy, who had claimed the Bremerton School District violated his religious freedom by telling him he couldn’t lead public prayers on the football field immediately after games. The district argued that allowing the prayers, led by a government employee, created the appearance that the school district was advocating a religious point of view.

“Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. “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.”

The coach’s decision to lead prayers on the 50-yard line in connection with high school games had sparked a debate over whether his actions amounted to a private moment of religious observance, or a public demonstration of his own faith in which players may have felt pressured to participate.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the court “consistently has recognized that school officials leading prayer is constitutionally impermissible” and said Monday’s decision amounted to a rejection of the “nation’s longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state.”

The dissent, in which Sotomayor was joined by justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, said the new ruling was “particularly misguided because it elevates the religious rights of a school official, who voluntarily accepted public employment and the limits that public employment entails, over those of his students, who are required to attend school and who this court has long recognized are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection.”

She wrote that the majority’s characterization of the coach’s prayers as “private and quiet” misconstrued the facts: “The record reveals that Kennedy had a longstanding practice of conducting demonstrative prayers on the 50-yard line of the football field.”

The majority, however, found that the coach’s conduct in Bremerton “looks very different from (cases) in which this court has found prayer involving public school students to be problematically coercive… There is no evidence anyone sought to persuade or force students to participate, and there is no formal school program accommodating the religious activity at issue.”

Kennedy had rejected the school district’s directive that he pray in private, continuing his long-standing practice of dropping to one knee and praying on the 50-yard line, with state legislators and reporters sometimes invited to observe. Kennedy argued he was simply expressing his own religious beliefs and was not acting on behalf of the school district.

After the district gave him a poor performance evaluation, he did not apply for a contract renewal in 2016, then sued the district, claiming violations of his right to free expression and religious freedom.

The lower courts had ruled against Kennedy, finding that because he chose to pray in such a prominent place and in connection with the games themselves, he was acting as a public employee and his conduct was therefore not protected by the First Amendment. Those rulings were based on past U.S. Supreme Court rulings that said when public employees are acting in their official capacities, they are speaking more for the government than for themselves.

Reaction to the ruling was swift and, predictably, reflected a division between conservative and liberal points of view.

On Twitter, Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, wrote: “Another win for religious liberty and personal freedom!”

Connie Ryan, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, released a statement calling Monday’s decision “one of the most dangerous rulings” to come out of the U.S. Supreme Court this session.

“The court has now sided with a public-school teacher — a government employee — and their choice to coerce school children into praying, rather than side with the Establishment Clause of our First Amendment that protects Americans from the infringement of the government in the matters of religion,” Ryan said in a statement. “Given the precedent established in the Kennedy decision, what’s to stop public school teachers with certain religious beliefs from mandating students to participate in the study of sacred texts to proselytize and evangelize? Or to pressure students to attend religious services outside of the school day — services that are from a religious tradition very different than the student’s and their family?”

U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson, a Republican from Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, said in statement that “Coach Kennedy should have never lost his job for bowing his head in prayer after football games. As Americans, we are guaranteed the right to practice our religion freely without oppression, and this decision reaffirms that any attempt to chip away at our liberties will not stand.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence also praised Monday’s ruling, saying, “Americans of faith do not turn their devotion off and on like a light switch, and we must reject any attempt by the government to control private religious expression — especially those who call on their faith when answering the call to participate in public service.”

Kennedy now lives in Florida but has said in the past that if the Supreme Court were to rule in his favor, he would return to Bremerton and reapply for his job as football coach.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.