Updated Jun 27, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Supreme Court says public school officials can pray openly

Picture of the Supreme Court

Photo: Samuel Corum/AFP via Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled 6-3 that a Washington state public high school football coach had a right to pray on the field with students, declaring that such activity is protected under the Constitution because it counts as free speech.

Driving the news: "The Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal; the Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression," according to the court's opinion, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Catch up fast: The plaintiff in the case was public high school football coach Joseph Kennedy, who would pray midfield after games. The school district had asked him to stop doing so, saying that it violated the board's policy and the Constitution.

  • Kennedy was placed on administrative leave. He then sued the school, saying that it violated his right to free speech.

Details: Gorsuch wrote that the school's reasoning to discipline Kennedy was "misguided," adding that the First Amendment "[protects] expressions" like Kennedy's.

  • "The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike."
  • Lower courts had held that because Kennedy "'was hired precisely to occupy' an 'influential role for student athletes,' any speech he uttered was offered in his capacity as a government employee and unprotected by the First Amendment."
  • However, Gorsuch said that the school had a "mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination," and therefore the court ruled to reverse the lower courts' judgments.

In her dissent, Justice Sonya Sotomayor said that the Constitution "does not authorize, let alone required, public schools to embrace" activity such as Kennedy's, and called the opinion of the court "misguided."

  • "[T]his Court consistently has recognized that school officials leading prayer is constitutionally impermissible. ... The Court now charts a different path," she added.
  • "This decision does a disservice to schools and the young citizens they serve, as well as to our Nation's long-standing commitment to the separation of church and state."
  • The court "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."
Go deeper