In a huge win for Christian conservatives, Joseph Kennedy, the high school assistant football coach whom administrators fired in 2015 for praying on the field with students, was reinstated to his coaching position and will receive a $1.78 million settlement from Washington’s Bremerton School District.
The wrongful termination and religious bias case made its way through the court system, and in 2022 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the school’s actions against Kennedy violated the First Amendment.
The assistant coach, a Marine Corps veteran, shared that in 2008 he started a tradition of kneeling in prayer after football games. Some students chose to join him — offering thanks for the opportunity to play and prayers for the safety of players in future games.
In 2015, a school administrator told Kennedy he needed to stop the practice after an opposing team reportedly complained. Kennedy refused, noting that those who took a knee spoke no words and no one was expected or forced to participate.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the majority opinion in the case, said:
“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse republic.”
Gorsuch continued: Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance based on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”
Bremerton School District administrators have reinstated Kennedy but said in a statement that they “offered repeatedly” to accommodate Kennedy’s desire to pray “as long as he was not delivering prayers to students or coercing students to join him.”
Kennedy stated the board misrepresented his actions and argued that his tradition of “taking a knee in silent prayer” was not proselytizing nor was it “coercing students to join him.”
The board formally reinstated Kennedy last week. Court documents stipulate that Bremerton School District “shall not interfere with or prohibit Kennedy from offering a prayer” and cannot “retaliate against or take any future adverse employment action against Kennedy” for conduct protected by the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Daily Wire noted the Supreme Court’s ruling was one of several “favorable rulings for religious liberty in the United States in recent years.”
Regarding the rights of free speech and religious freedom, Gorsuch wrote:
Government is not free to disregard the First Amendment in times of crisis. At a minimum, that Amendment prohibits government officials from treating religious exercises worse than comparable secular activities unless they are pursuing a compelling interest and using the least restrictive means available. It is time, past time, to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques.
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