At long last, a victory for Coach Kennedy
Jeremy Dys | And another big win for religious liberty at the Supreme Court
On Oct. 5, 2015—six years, eight months, and 19 days ago—my firm, First Liberty Institute, agreed to represent high school football coach Joe Kennedy. This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court finally decided his case, granting Kennedy his only desire—to be able to kneel in quiet, personal prayer at the 50-yard line after the games he coached.
Perhaps by now, you know the story. Before coaching his first game in 2008, Kennedy committed to God that he would give thanks after each game—win or lose—for the opportunity to be a football coach and for his players. His inspiration was the movie Facing the Giants. For seven years, after each game, he walked to the center of the field, knelt, and offered a brief prayer of thanks.
When his players noticed, some voluntarily asked to join him. His response was simple: “It’s a free country.”
Or so he thought.
It was only after his school’s principal received of all things a compliment from an official at another school that an investigation into Coach Kennedy’s prayers was launched. First, the school district asked him to stop praying with students, and Kennedy complied. But that wasn’t enough. District officials demanded that he stop praying where he could be seen, telling him to go to a small press box or inside the school building. Kennedy decided his commitment to God was more important and continued to take a knee at midfield after games. The school then fired him because he could be seen doing something religious.
That’s what happened. And, according to Justice Neil Gorsuch, no longer can anyone be fired just because someone can see them engaged in a private act of religion.
“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic—whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head,” Justice Gorsuch wrote. “Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. … The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”
Now the law is, or should be, settled: Neither coaches nor teachers shed their constitutional rights when they walk through the door of a public school.
Yet, missing from any legal brief or opinion is what we have seen firsthand for nearly seven years. Our firm’s front-row seat has given us a view of Coach Kennedy, the person. When he was literally called into the principal’s office, we were there to see the confusion on his face for being told his private, 15 seconds’ worth of prayer on a knee could force him to lose his job. We heard his question repeatedly, something like, “I fought for 20 years in the Marines defending everyone’s freedom. Why am I being denied mine now?”
We were there the last time in October 2015 when he finished coaching a game and, refusing to compromise on his commitment to God, knelt at the 50-yard line in private prayer. We were there when he lost his job, when the school banned him from the field and players had to reach over the fence to hug their beloved coach on senior night, and when the school decided it would not rehire him to coach again.
We were there when Coach Kennedy—an orphaned kid who lived a hardscrabble life on the streets of Bremerton, Wash.—stepped into the Oval Office to meet the president of the United States. Countless Americans have come to his defense and offered their encouragement. In an age of a divided America, it is a pleasure to see so many still concerned about a single person’s religious liberty.
Now, after nearly seven long years of litigation, Coach Kennedy has finally won the most important victory of his life. A victory that will have implications for coaches and teachers throughout the United States.
At heart, Coach Kennedy’s case reflects the reality that public school officials often, at best, treat religious expression and religious identity as something shameful that must be hidden from view and, at worst, a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. But the Supreme Court saw through that argument and declared the truth: Teachers and coaches don’t lose their First Amendment rights when they walk through the schoolhouse doors.
No one should be forced to choose between their faith and the job they love. Thanks to Coach Kennedy, no public school coach or teacher should now have to make that choice.
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