In an important decision with far-reaching implications, the United States Supreme Court held that a school district violated a football coach’s First Amendment rights in disciplining him for post-game prayers. The controversial Kennedy v. Bremerton holding represents a departure from the traditional legal approach to prayer in public schools.
The Background: A district coach had a long-standing practice of offering prayers and inspirational speeches at the midway line after a game ended. Sometimes students or other coaches would join him; the extent to which the coach invited or encouraged this was disputed. Eventually, this situation came to the administration’s attention. The school district directed the Coach to refrain from any overt actions that could lead a reasonable observer to conclude that the district is endorsing prayer. Following considerable media attention, the opposing team joined the Coach’s next post-game prayer, along with members of the public. The administration directed the Coach to refrain from demonstrative, overt conduct that either interferes with his duties or risks the perception that the district is endorsing prayer. The next several games were followed by the Coach praying while players from the opposing team, community members, and state representatives joined him on the field. Several parents reached out to the district to report that their children participated in previous prayers to avoid separating themselves from the team. Other coaches eventually resigned or did not reapply, citing fear of attacks due to the Coach’s media appearances and the ensuing threats. The school district placed the Coach on administrative leave and he was not recommended for rehiring the following year. The Coach sued, but both the trial court and the appellate court held in the school district’s favor, finding that the district acted appropriately to avoid an Establishment Clause claim.
The Decision: In a 6-3 decision, the United States Supreme Court reversed the previous decisions, holding that the Coach’s prayer was protected by the First Amendment’s free exercise and free speech provisions. Specifically, the Court found that Coach prayed briefly and alone, and the school district lacked evidence showing that students were coerced to participate. The Court also noted that coaches were free to attend briefly to personal matters after games and were not required to fulfill any job responsibilities at that time. Thus, the Court concluded, the Coach’s prayer did not reflect government speech and the school district improperly disciplined him for his private speech. Finally, the school district’s fear of violating the Establishment Clause by tolerating the coach’s prayer was ill-founded and did not justify the discipline either.
The Implications: School districts and public universities will need to proceed with caution in addressing employee prayer and other religious activity. Restricting a staff member’s worship or other religious practice may require the employer to show that students were coerced into some level of participation. Examples could include publicly-broadcast prayers or those recited to a captive audience. In some situations, it may be appropriate to consider collateral violations of an institution’s policies or guidelines, but consulting with counsel before taking any disciplinary steps will be especially essential. Please do not hesitate to contact us should you need any guidance in addressing staff religious conduct in your school district or university.
If you have questions, please know that we are happy to help with any challenges your district may be experiencing.