Whether a public school district had the constitutional authority to prevent a high school football coach from continuing his longstanding practice of leading student-athletes in midfield prayer immediately after games.
For years, Joseph Kennedy, a football coach at Bremerton High School, WA, led students on his team in prayer both before and after games. After learning of this practice, the school district asked him to stop, offering various accommodations that would have allowed him to pray without religiously coercing students, endangering safety, or risking a perception that his religious message bore the school’s imprimatur. Instead, the coach continued to lead his student-athletes in on-field public prayers after games, and then sued the school district, claiming a First Amendment right to do so.
As we argue in our amicus brief, however, the Constitution does not protect public employees’ speech made pursuant to their official duties. Coach Kennedy admittedly was on the job during his post-game team prayers, and so the First Amendment did not shield him from employee discipline, particularly given the school’s legitimate concerns about the effect of his conduct on the public and his students. In fact, the school district was not only authorized to act, but required to step in to avoid violating the Establishment Clause. Recognizing the coercive harms that school-sponsored religious practices impose on students, the Supreme Court has held for more than half a century that the First Amendment forbids public schools and their officials from promoting religious beliefs or organizing, encouraging, or leading prayer among students.