An Answered Prayer? Supreme Court Appears Sympathetic Towards High School Coach’s Right to Prayer
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Former Bremerton High School Assistant Football Coach, Joseph Kennedy, never wanted public attention. Rather, he wanted to coach football and say a short, internal prayer on the fifty-yard line after each game. Specifically, he wanted to thank God for his players and for the opportunity to coach them. Despite his religious beliefs, the coach recently found himself standing in front of the Supreme Court after losing his job because he refused to stop praying.
High School Football Coach Tests the Supreme Court
Coach Kennedy argued the school district violated his religious freedom by forbidding him to publicly pray after games. Paul Clement, representing Kennedy, advocated to the justices that the 50-yard line prayers at the end of the games were “private religious expressions[,]” protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution’s guarantee to free speech and free exercise of religion. He stated the prayer was analogous with a player crossing himself after scoring a touchdown, or teammates taking a knee during a player injury.
In contrast, Richard Katskee, a lawyer representing the Bremerton School District, asked the justices to enforce Thomas Jefferson’s ideology of separation between church and state. He argued that the coach’s prayers were a form of coercion and endorsement. In particular, Katskee argued that because Coach Kennedy determines who makes varsity, gets playing time, and provides recommendations for college scholarships, he and the other coaches pressure athletes to pray to ensure a better high school football career. In addition, the school district noted that Coach Kennedy’s conduct created safety concerns, recalling that the prayers sparked students to storm the field and caused individuals to get knocked down.
During the argument, the conservative Court majority seemed prepared to rule Coach Kennedy exercised his private religious beliefs and was not endorsing or speaking for the school district. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, for example, suggested there is a difference between coaches who pray during a huddle in the locker room versus those who pray after the game. “This wasn’t, you know, ‘Huddle up, team,’” Kavanaugh stated. This comment seems to support Coach Kennedy’s conduct as an acceptable form of private, as opposed to government, speech.
Contrary to the conservative view, the three liberal justices sided with the school district’s concerns of coercion. Justice Kagan exemplified this view by stating “[w]e're worried that the students will feel he gets to put me into a football game, or not… And this is a kind of coercion that’s improper for 16-year-olds.”
Prior Precedent and Predicting the Likely Outcome
Prayer in public schools and sporting events has been a highly litigated topic in front of the Supreme Court for decades. One of the foundational religious cases dates to Lemon v. Kurtzman, which held in 1971 that laws must have a “secular legislative purpose.” The Court established a three-part test to determine whether the law survives constitutional muster. To pass this test, the government conduct (1) must have a secular purpose, (2) must have a principal or primary effect that does not advance or inhibit religion, and (3) cannot create an excessive government entanglement with religion. Overtime, however, the test as largely been abandoned in a manner that continues to favor religious expression.
Based on the tone of the 6-3 conservative justices, it is expected the opinion will side with the Christian coach, finding the prayers were private speech. Ultimately, this opinion will not only effect coaches, but it will make it easier for public school employees to express their religious views. In addition, the court may take the opportunity to overturn the Lemon test. The opinion should be issued before summer recess.
 Ruth Fremson, NYT (April 25, 2022).  See Michael A. Fletcher, How an unknown high school football coach landed in the center of a Supreme Court religious liberty case, ESPN (Apr. 25, 2022).  Id.  Id.  See John Kruzel, Supreme Court revisits prayer in school in football coach case, The Hill (Apr. 24, 2022).  Id.  Id.  Id.  Id.  See Supreme Court Hears Arguments About Praying High School FB Coach, AP (April 25, 2022).  Id. See Nina Totenberg, Supreme Court seems sympathetic to coach who claims right to pray on the 50-yard-line, NPR (April 25, 2022).  Id.  Id.  Id.  Id.  See Anthony Zurcher, US Supreme Court: Should this coach have been punished for praying? (April 26, 2022).  Id.  Id.  Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 91 S. Ct. 2105 (1971).  Id. at 612.  Id. at 612-613.  See Zurcher, supra note 17.  See Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung, U.S. Supreme Court conservatives lean toward football coach in prayer case (April 25, 2022).  Id.  Id.  Id.