The Case for Coach Kennedy: On Campus and Beyond

Though the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health took top billing this term, the court issued another important decision this month: In a 6–3 decision, the court ruled that Coach Joe Kennedy had been unfairly disciplined after offering prayers onfield after football games. 

Kennedy, who was fired from his coaching position at Bremerton High School in 2015 because of his postgame prayers, is not irascible toward the school district that he litigated against. He didn’t sue for millions, as others may have. He simply wanted his job back.

The court’s decision was lauded by many Christian organizations while being condemned by other groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. It’s emblematic of the larger debate between secularism and religion in 21st century America, and what role religious freedom has in the public sphere. Accordingly, the whole of Kennedy v. Bremerton could have implications on our own campus community.

Any dilettante in constitutional law could point you to the First Amendment to find the “free exercise” of religion protected; what the Supreme Court was left to interpret in Kennedy v. Bremerton was the where, when, and how of this right. 

In the decision, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that the “free exercise” clause can be broadly interpreted in favor of protecting public displays of faith. Its decades-long streak of affirming religious liberty should be, for the most part, lauded. Case and case again, the highest court has affirmed that religious freedom is not a private matter, but one that has a space in public venues. Allowing the free exercise of religion in public spaces, such on a football field after a hard-fought game, is a civic good in the court’s eyes.

Bremerton School District nonetheless argued that Kennedy’s prayers may cause students and their families to feel coerced to pray with him, and that only athletes who participated in these prayers would see the field. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the firm that represented Bremerton, noted its suspicion of coercion, and argued that religious freedom would be better preserved by curtailing Kennedy’s rights. The Supreme Court disagreed, citing that Bremerton Schools solely disciplined Kennedy for his personal prayers.

“The contested exercise here does not involve leading prayers with the team; the District disciplined Mr. Kennedy only for his decision to persist in praying quietly without his students after three games in October 2015,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in his majority opinion. 

The dramas of a school district in Washington state would typically have little bearing on the functioning of the University of Michigan, had it not been for the involvement of a court in Washington, DC. Though we aren’t compelled to think that Jim Harbaugh will be following Coach Kennedy’s example precisely—though he is a devout Catholic, who believes in the power of prayer—the precedent set by the court in Kennedy v. Bremerton may allow him to host his own postgame prayers 

Thank goodness for that.

If Harbaugh—or any Michigan coach, for that matter—leads prayers after a match in the same manner that Coach Kennedy did, there should be no cause for concern, and the court would likely agree. Prayers that are non-compulsory, briefly given, and otherwise unobtrusive to the team and school reflect the individual’s religious faith. They do not imply that the institution is in accord with the message. At a public, secular institution such as the University of Michigan, there would be no confusion over whether or not the school endorses a Christian worldview: it doesn’t.

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About Tyler Watt

Tyler Watt is a senior studying political science and history at the University of Michigan. A native of Saginaw, Michigan, he enjoys writing about theology, politics, and campus affairs. Tyler serves as President of LSA Student Government and works as a Resident Advisor in Alice Lloyd Hall.