Mark Brnovich Applauds SCOTUS for Upholding the First Amendment Rights of a Former Public High School Coach

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R) applauded the Supreme Court of the United States for upholding the First Amendment rights of Joseph Kennedy, a former Washington high school football coach.

“This is a great win, strongly affirming our constitutional recognition for freedom of speech, religion, and personal expression for all,” Brnovich said. “The First Amendment is at the core of who we are as Americans, and we must vigorously uphold it not only in court but every day of our lives.”

According to Fox News, SCOTUS ruled on Monday 6-3 in Kennedy’s favor. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch (R) wrote the court’s opinion on Joseph A. Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (BSD).

According to the opinion, Kennedy began working at Bremerton High School (BHS) in 2008 after nearly two decades in the Marine Corps. Kennedy made it a practice to offer prayers of thanks after every game by kneeling on the 50-yard line. He initially prayed on his own, but players began asking if they could join him, which he allowed without compelling them. Allegedly, most of the team began joining Kennedy in prayer after the game, and he began giving motivational talks. The team also reportedly partook in pre-game prayers in the locker room, but this practice was a “school tradition” that predated Kennedy joining the team. These prayers continued for over seven years.

The district’s superintendent learned of the prayers in 2015 when an employee from another school gave BHS a positive comment on the school’s practices. Kennedy received a letter shortly after, which instructed him to avoid hosting motivational talks with students involving any religion. Any religious activity on his part must be “nondemonstrative” to avoid any perceived notion that the school endorses a religion, breaking the Establishment Clause (EC). After receiving the letter, Kennedy reportedly broke the tradition of a pre-game prayer in the locker room. He also made no religious reference in his after-game speech and left the game without offering his usual prayer. However, this allegedly upset Kennedy, who returned and offered a prayer after everyone had left.

A back-and-forth ensued between Kennedy and the district, as he felt his religious beliefs compelled him to continue praying. The school offered to let Kennedy pray in nonvisible locations, but Kennedy continued to pray on the field away from students after games.

After the final relevant game of the season, the district placed Kennedy on paid administrative leave but never rehired him, leading to Kennedy filing a lawsuit against the BSD. After years of fighting, his case arrived at SCOTUS, which had two questions to answer: whether Kennedy’s prayers were unprotected “government speech,” and if not, does it violate the First Amendment’s EC?

Gorsuch’s opinion answered both questions with a no. Despite Kennedy being a government employee, his prayers were not “pursuant to a government policy,” nor was he promoting a government message. He also was not acting in the normal scope of his duties, so Gorsuch determined his prayers did not count as government speech and were therefore protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clause.

Furthermore, Gorsuch argued the school’s claim that any observer witnessing the prayer would believe that the school endorses a certain religion is flawed.

“That reasoning was misguided,” according to the opinion. “Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. 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.”

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Neil Jones is a reporter for The Arizona Sun Times and The Star News Network. Follow Neil on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Mark Brnovich” by Attorney General Mark Brnovich. Background Photo “Joe Kennedy” by Support Coach Joe Kennedy.

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