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Supreme Court rules in favor of high school coach who prayed on field after games

Former Bremerton (Wash.) High School assistant coach Joe Kennedy's postgame ritual became a flashpoint on the intersection of the First Amendment and religious liberty in America.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of Joe Kennedy, the high school coach who was fired for leading prayers after games.

The case dated back nearly seven years. Then an assistant coach at Bremerton High School in Washington State, Kennedy routinely prayed on the field after games, and invited players and opponents to join him. Instructed to stop by school and district officials, Kennedy refused. He was then suspended and was not retained after the 2015 season. He sued, and on Monday won a victory from the nation's highest court.

"This is a right for everybody. It doesn't matter if you're this religion or that religion or have no faith whatsoever," Kennedy told ABC News back in April. "Everybody has the same rights in America." 

The case reached the Supreme Court because it sat at the intersection of two fundamental beliefs in America -- the right to free expression and the separation of church and state. The Court ruled Kennedy was not acting as a government employee during the prayers, and its demands that he pray out of sight of any players and discourage any players who asked to join him were a violation of his First Amendment rights.  

Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch argued Kennedy was not acting as a government employee because his prayers (which lasted around one minute) occurred after games. 

"Mr. Kennedy prayed during a period when school employees were free to speak with a friend, call for a reservation at a restaurant, check email, or attend to other personal matters. He offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied. Still, the Bremerton School District disciplined him anyway," Gorsuch wrote." It did so because it thought anything less could lead a reasonable observer to conclude (mistakenly) that it endorsed Mr. Kennedy’s religious beliefs. That reasoning was misguided. Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s."

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Sonya Sotomayor argued allowing Kennedy to pray at a school function violated the religious liberty protections under the Constitution of any players or parents who may have objected to the act. (For the record, there is no evidence of a player or parent objecting to Kennedy's prayers.)

"This case is about whether a public school must permit a school official to kneel, bow his head, and say a prayer at the center of a school event. The Constitution does not authorize, let alone require, public schools to embrace this conduct. Since Engel v. Vitale, 370 U. S. 421 (1962), this Court consistently has recognized that school officials leading prayer is constitutionally impermissible," Sotomayor wrote." Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents, as embodied in both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The Court now charts a different path."

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