Legal Update: Supreme Court Decides Coach Prayer Case, and More



The United States Supreme Court has issued its long-awaited opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, a case involving a high school football coach who was placed on administrative leave for repeatedly praying on the football field after the game had concluded. The Court held that the Bremerton School District violated the coach’s First Amendment rights by placing him on leave, giving him a negative performance review, and recommending that his contract not be renewed.

The Court first addressed whether the coach was speaking as an employee (in which case his prayers would not be protected by the First Amendment) or as a private citizen. In its opinion, the Court emphasized that the coach’s prayers took place after the game and after the players shook hands with the other team, but before returning to the locker room. Evidence produced by the parties in this case showed that, during the time that the coach was praying, other coaches were free to briefly attend to personal matters as well – “everything from checking sports scores on their phones to greeting friends and family in the stands.” Given this timing, the Court concluded that the coach was praying as a private citizen, during a time that the school district allowed employees to engage in private speech.

The Court next addressed the school district’s argument that it had disciplined the coach to avoid any claims that it was endorsing his religious practices. The Court noted that there was no evidence anyone had ever actually complained or been misled into believing that the school district endorsed the coach’s prayers. The Court further noted that there was no obligation for the school to proactively censor religious expression, and held that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment does not require schools to proscribe religious conduct based on “perceptions” or “discomfort.”

The school district also argued that it had forbidden the coach’s prayers to avoid any claim that it was coercing student prayer, which would also violate the First Amendment. In its discussion regarding “coercion,” the Court revisited and reaffirmed examples of cases where it had found school-related prayer coercive, such as prayers in classrooms and during graduation ceremonies, as well as prayers that were broadcast over public address systems prior to football games. In those cases, the Court focused on the context of the prayer, and found “coercion” because students are required to attend class or graduation ceremonies, and that at least some students (band members, football players, cheerleaders) are required to attend football games. The Court also acknowledged that any staff-led prayer where students were required or expected to participate could be impermissibly coercive. None of these factors, however, were present in the Kennedy case, as the school district admitted that there was no evidence any student was explicitly or implicitly pressured to pray with the coach. The Court therefore found that, under these facts, the coach’s prayers were protected by the First Amendment.
The Kennedy decision illustrates that even small factual distinctions can lead to different outcomes under the First Amendment. This is an evolving area of law, and careful consideration of the circumstances is warranted before any action is taken to permit or prohibit an employee’s religious expression while at work. If you have questions regarding this case or its application to your school, the lawyers of Ratwik, Roszak & Maloney are available to discuss your inquiry and apply our knowledge and experience to your specific situation. We can be reached at (612) 339-0060.