A high school football coach who was fired after leading his players in prayer after a game has won a $1.7 million settlement and got his job back.
Joseph Kennedy had taught at Bremerton High School since 2008 and had a post-game tradition of praying on the 50-yard line, as reported by the Seattle Times.
Students and players began noticing what their coach was doing after each game and began joining him, and he began giving talks with religious references.
The public school district asked Kennedy to cease the prayers and the post-game religious talks and suspended him in 2015.
As per the Seattle Times, Kennedy’s contract ran out and he didn’t reapply for his position – but he did file a lawsuit in protest of his termination.
His attorney – First Liberty Institute, a non-profit Christian legal organization – escalated the case to the Supreme Court.
During the trial, Kennedy claimed that he was engaging in private prayer and that his students joined him by their own choice.
The school district alleged that Kennedy broke the Constitution’s prohibition on government officials promoting religion by students joining in with the prayer and his religious talks.
The Supreme Court ruled that Kennedy was protected by the first amendment in a split 6-3 decision and overturned several rulings from lower courts that took the side of the school district. Every Republican-appointed justice sided with Kennedy, with the Democrats voting with the school board.
Republic Justice Neil Gorsuch said via the Seattle Times: “The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.”
— Mario (@coachblauman) October 26, 2015
Democratic Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the Consitution doesn’t allow officials to pray “at the center of a school event”.
Citing the Bill of Rights, Sotomayor wrote that students have a right to an education free from government-exercised religion.
“Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents,” Sotomayor wrote, while adding that the court’s decision “elevates one individual’s interest in personal religious exercise, in the exact time and place of that individual’s choosing, over society’s interest in protecting the separation between church and state.”
In a statement, via the Times, Kennedy said: “This is just so awesome. All I’ve ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys. This is just me thanking God for 15 seconds after a football game.”
Kennedy wishes to move on from this ordeal, adding that he intended to pray alone and it was up to his students if they join in with him.
Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction released a statement saying: “It remains illegal and unethical for public school employees to coerce, pressure, persuade, or force students, players, staff, or other participants to engage in any religious practice as a condition of playing, employment, belonging, or participation.”
The Bremerton school board voted unanimously to accept a settlement that sees Kennedy get awarded $1.7 million as well as being reinstated in his coaching role at the start of next season.