Douglas Andrews / June 28, 2022

A Touchdown for Religious Liberty

In another resounding ruling, the Supreme Court affirmed a coach’s right to take a knee and pray in public.

There were moments during the 2016 presidential campaign when Donald Trump fired up his crowd by talking about winning. And winning. And winning. It usually went something like this:

We’re going to win so much. We’re gonna win at every level. … We’re gonna win with every single facet. We’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning. And you’ll say, “Please, please, it’s too much winning. We can’t take it anymore. Mr. President, it’s too much.” And I’ll say, “No, it isn’t. We have to keep winning. We have to win more. We’re gonna win more. We’re gonna win so much!”

It seems like a long time ago. Because lately, under Joe Biden, we’ve been losing. A lot. We’ve been losing fiscally and economically, militarily and geopolitically, culturally and criminally.

Until the last week or so. That was when the Supreme Court’s 6-3 (okay, 5-3-1) majority began imposing its constitutional will. On Wednesday, it did so with a ruling in favor of religious liberty and school choice in Maine. On Thursday, it was a forceful smackdown of New York’s ancient and onerous concealed-carry law. On Friday, it brought the reaffirmation of life as well as an acknowledgment of the High Court’s rightful place with the long-overdue overturning of Roe v. Wade. And yesterday, we saw religious liberty upheld once again on behalf of a praying football coach.

Don’t look now, but we’re winning again — at least at the Supreme Court.

At issue was the case involving Joe Kennedy, an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington, across Puget Sound from woebegone Seattle. Kennedy would take a knee in prayer at the 50-yard line after each game — a not-uncommon practice at football games. He was disciplined and ultimately lost his job, which seemed to us a clear case of phony First Amendment Wall-of-Separationism. Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed, ruling 6–3 in Kennedy’s favor and finding that his constitutional rights to free speech and free exercise of religion had been violated. In doing so, the Court rejected the school district’s over-the-top view that allowing a single public employee to pray by himself without coercing another soul to join him was tantamount to establishing a state religion under the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch declared:

Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor. The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.

Coach Kennedy’s employer, though, wasn’t interested in mutual respect or tolerance. “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,” wrote Justice Gorsuch. “He offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied. Still, the Bremerton School District disciplined him anyway.”

Remarkably, and perhaps tellingly, the coach and his legal team lost five consecutive times before being vindicated by the nation’s ultimate legal authority. “This is just so awesome,” said Coach Kennedy. “All I’ve ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys. I am incredibly grateful to the Supreme Court, my fantastic legal team, and everyone who has supported us. I thank God for answering our prayers and sustaining my family through this long battle.”

Kennedy was represented by First Liberty Institute, which Sports Illustrated’s bigoted (or is he just ignorant?) Greg Bishop called a “powerful Christian conservative law firm.” Bishop also wrote that Kennedy was “a sledgehammer aimed at a bedrock of democracy: the separation of church and state.” Dude needs to stick to sports. Either that, or learn a lot more about our Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of free exercise.

Kelly Shackelford, president, CEO, and chief counsel of First Liberty, called the decision “a tremendous victory for Coach Kennedy and religious liberty for all Americans.” He continued: “Our Constitution protects the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired. We are grateful that the Supreme Court recognized what the Constitution and law have always said — Americans are free to live out their faith in public.”

It was another great win for religious liberty, but history could’ve turned out much differently. Reflecting on the aforementioned string of decisions in favor of life and liberty, columnist Gary Bauer writes, “Once again, I shudder to think how differently this case would have turned out if Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump, had replaced Justices Scalia, Kennedy and Ginsburg.”

As the Supreme Court nears the end of its term, let’s see if that conservative majority can keep notching wins on behalf of life and liberty.

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