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Religion on the Field and in the Court

Samantha Tonini

Edited by Mihir Gokhale, Colin Crawford, and Vedanth Ramabhadran.


In 2016, a contentious legal dispute began when Joseph Kennedy initiated a lawsuit against the Bremerton Independent School District, ultimately leading to a landmark ruling by the United States Supreme Court. Kennedy had been a beloved football coach at Bremerton High School for seven years, and after each game during his tenure, he expressed his gratitude to God through a silent prayer on the fifty-yard line [1]. Little did he know that these simple acts of devotion would eventually culminate in a high-profile legal battle.

The controversy began on September 17, 2015, when Kennedy received a letter from Bremerton High School informing him that his prayers were under investigation due to an opposing coach who had informed the school that he thought it was  “‘cool’” that the District “‘would allow [its] coaches to go ahead and invite other teams’ coaches and players to pray after a game’”  [2]. The BISD referred to its own policy on "Religious-Related Activities and Practices," which aimed to protect students' religious rights while also requiring school employees to remain neutral and avoid projecting religious influence on students [3]. This policy was based on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from establishing an official national religion and ensures that public schools and their employees do not promote any particular religion [4]. The BISD claimed that since Kennedy was still on duty and in uniform, his public religious displays could not only create legal liability for the District but also interfere with his professional responsibilities.

After Kennedy failed to comply with the district's request to make his prayers more private and perform them in the absence of any students, he was terminated from his coaching position. In response, he filed a lawsuit asserting that the District had violated his rights under the Free Speech Clause and Free Exercise Clause — two provisions protected by the First Amendment. The Free Speech Clause guarantees the right to express one's thoughts and opinions without government-imposed repercussions, and the Free Exercise Clause protects citizens' right to practice their religion freely, provided it does not conflict with compelling governmental interests or public morals [5] [4].

Kennedy’s case ultimately reached the Supreme Court, and on June 27, 2022, a 6-3 Court majority ruled in Kennedy’s favor. The Court’s ruling marked a pivotal moment in the ongoing legal debate around the intersection of personal religious expression and public educational institutions. On a larger scale, the case demonstrates the Supreme Court’s ongoing religious bias as the majority ignored facts in order to protect Christian religious freedom.

Throughout his majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch overlooks key evidence that demonstrates that Kennedy’s actions did in fact violate the Establishment Clause. While Gorsuch does admit that Kennedy invited students and faculty of both BHS and opposing high schools to join in, he falsely states that students extended these invitations and ignores the opposing coach’s previously mentioned statement that Kennedy actually extended the invitation [6]. Gorsuch also fails to state that while Kennedy may not have required any of his athletes to participate in the prayer, several students’ parents reported to BISD that their children only participated out of fear of being ostracized [2].

When describing one of  Kennedy’s final games before his termination on October 16, Gorsuch states: 

When he bowed his head at midfield after the game “most [Bremerton] players were … engaged in the traditional singing of the school fight song in the audience.” Though Mr. Kennedy was alone when he began to pray, players from the other team and members of the community joined him before he finished his prayer. 

This event spurred media coverage of Mr. Kennedy’s dilemma and a public response from the District. [6]

What Gorsuch fails to mention, and what Justice Sonia Sotomayor challenges him on in her dissent, is that Kennedy first reached out to the media before the October 16 football game, “leading to an article in the Seattle News and a local television broadcast about the upcoming homecoming game” [7]. This publicity attracted news reporters and contributed to an increased attendance and attention toward that specific game. In Sotomayor's description of the incident, she states: 

On October 16, after play had concluded, Kennedy shook hands with the opposing team, and as advertised, knelt to pray while most BHS players were singing the school’s fight song. He quickly was joined by coaches and players from the opposing team. Television news cameras surrounded the group. Members of the public rushed the field to join Kennedy, jumping fences to access the field and knocking over student band members. [7]

Gorsuch based his ruling on Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which states that free speech  is still protected on school property so long as it does not interfere with the operations of the school. Therefore, Gorsuch argued that Kennedy’s prayer was protected speech [6][8]. Yet Kennedy’s actions did in fact interfere with the operations of the school, especially following his outreach to the media. That solicitation not only led to an increased attendance to his prayer but also placed several students at risk as the crowd rushed the field. 

Along with several other recent cases such as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and Creative LLC v. Elenis, this ruling sets a dangerous precedent that elevates Christian views in spite of the Establishment Clause. All three of these cases resulted in 6-3 rulings, with Justices Sotomayor and Kagan dissenting in all three, Justice Breyer dissenting in Dobbs and Kennedy, and his replacement, Justice Jackson, dissenting in Creative LLC [9] [10]. Each of these cases contained clear political and religious divides  since topics like abortion (Dobbs) and LGBTQ+ rights (Creative LLC) tend to be religiously motivated. In Kennedy v. BISD, the Court’s majority defends Kennedy’s overt displays of Christianity and outright ignores the face of the case to protect his Christian rights. Currently, the Supreme Court consists of  seven justices who are Catholic, or in Gorsuch’s case, were raised Catholic [11]. At the time of Kennedy, the only non-Catholic justices were Kagan and Breyer, both of whom are Jewish and dissented.

It is also important to note that the Supreme Court’s religious makeup does not reflect America’s demographic composition.  According to the Public Religion Research Institute, as of 2020, Catholics only constitute 20% of the US population [12]. Although Christians still form a large majority of Americans, there has been a dramatic rise in the presence of nonreligious persons, who account for approximately 23% of the US population [12]. This factor is extremely important when qualifying the disconnect between the Supreme Court and the general population — especially on religiously charged topics where there exists a  heavy bias toward Christianity. 

At face value, Kennedy v. Bremerton Independent School District appears to be a simple case that concludes that public school employees cannot be denied the ability to engage in religious displays when they are private and non-disruptive. However, upon closer inspection of the facts of the case, it becomes clear that many caveats were overlooked as Kennedy’s prayers were neither private nor non-disruptive. Within this context, acknowledging that every justice in the majority is Christian helps explain their potential sympathy for  Kennedy’s case. This Christian, especially Catholic, bias has manifested in other cases recently decided by the Court.  Activists have fought for years to achieve a more diverse Supreme Court, and while the inclusion of women and people of color is critical, we must also recognize that justices’ religious affiliation  has an equally applicable influence on their judicial perspectives.

 

[1]The fight for coach Kennedy’s right to pray, First Liberty (2023), https://firstliberty.org/cases/coachkennedy/.

[6]Supra.

[7]Id.

[8]Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, Oyez, https://www.oyez.org/cases/1968/21.

[9]Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, Oyez, https://www.oyez.org/cases/2021/19-1392

[10]303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, Oyez, https://www.oyez.org/cases/2022/21-476

[11]Frank Newport, The religion of the Supreme Court justices Gallup.com (2024), https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/391649/religion-supreme-court-justices.aspx

[12]PRRI Census of American Religion, PRRI (2024), https://www.prri.org/research/2020-census-of-american-religion/

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