2022 Supreme Court: Football Coach Prayer in School Is OK; Supreme Court - Abortion Not a Constitutional Right; WV v EPA

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Bremerton: Praying in School Returns with Football Coach Joe Kennedy

In Bremerton, Washington, Joseph Kennedy, a high school football coach, filed a lawsuit against Washington state's Bremerton School District following a request that the coach ceases his kneeling, after-game prayers located mid-field. Kennedy's continued refusal to stop his after-game prayer led to his suspension. [i]

In his lawsuit, he asserted that the School District was guilty of violating his First Amendment right to Free Speech and Free Exercise. After two lower courts ruled in favor of the School District, Kennedy petitioned for and was granted a writ of certiorari. A writ of certiorari allows for case review by the SCOTUS, meaning the Supreme Court of the United States. [i]

A review of publicized data assists in better illustrating just how narrow of an opportunity an individual has of the SCOTUS granting their petition. Each year the Supreme Court receives nearly 10,000 petitions requesting writs of certiorari. Of the petitions received, the SCOTUS will only hear roughly 100, equivalent to merely 1% of all petitions submitted. [ii]

Coach Joseph Kennedy Finds Himself Entangled in Lawsuit Against Bremerton School District

After an opposing football team's coach witnessed Kennedy kneeling and praying on the field after a football game with several players, they 'positively commented,' at which point the School District became aware of Kennedy's actions. [iii]

Kennedy is said to have also previously led prayers in the locker rooms. It was also alleged that he often gave religious motivational speeches while standing on the field, holding a player's helmet up in the air as he spoke or prayed, as indicated by a photograph attached to Justice Sotomayor's dissenting opinion in the Kennedy case. [iii]

Screenshot from public access Case Syllabus depicting Kennedy holding helmet up in a group of kneeling players.Charnell Gilchrist

The discovery of Kennedy's 'prayer circle,' so to speak, caused, debatably, a 'kneejerk reaction' from the School District. Fearing Coach Kennedy's prayers may be misinterpreted as sponsored by the School District, they took swift action. [iv]

The School District believed Kennedy's actions would be considered a violation of the Establishment Clause and continuously requested his compliance in ceasing his public prayers. Alternatives were offered to allow Kennedy time after students were dismissed; however, Kennedy refused any compromise suggested. [iv]

Screenshot from public access Case Syllabus depicting Kennedy's 2015 'prayer circle'Charnell Gilchrist

The Establishment Clause prevents the government from establishing a religion as well as prevents the government from favoring one religion over another. Many have criticized the SCOTUS' recent decision charging the decision with favoring Christian speech over other faiths. [v]

It was also alleged that the decision prioritized a paid staff member's religious 'private' speech over a minor child's right to be free from coercion or peer pressure that is religious within a public school district classroom. [v]

Once the District became aware of Coach Kennedy's actions, they attempted to correct what was perceived as a threat to the students' individual right to be free from religious indoctrination in a public school setting. [vi]

According to precedence, when presented with such a free speech issue, the court should rely on Pickering v. Board of Education of Township High School District 205 and perform a balancing test to determine whose interests should prevail by balancing "the interests of the teacher, as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees." [vi]

Discounting the balancing test completely, the SCOTUS' opinion zeroes in on classifying Kennedy's speech as private instead of a component of, or link to, his official duties as a coach. Even though the School District repeatedly requested that Kennedy no longer pray in the presence of the students, to prevent any misperception of school-sponsored religious indoctrination, Coach Kennedy continued praying, never discouraging, for example, non-students and adults to refrain from (illegally) climbing gates to gain access to the school football field to stand with Kennedy, pose for photographs, and be a part of the after-game prayer. [vii]

Additionally, despite having once waited until all students had left the field to pray in solitude, Kennedy's attorney formally notified the School District that Coach Kennedy would continue his 50-yard line prayer because his "sincerely-held religious beliefs compell[ing him to do so]." [viii]

This declaration came despite the School District offering accommodations to allow Kennedy private time and a dedicated space for his prayer that would not so easily be misconstrued as proselytizing while acting as an employee, a coach, for the School District. [viii]

Despite photographic evidence indicating the opposite, Kennedy's highly visible, public prayers were described by the Justices as a "quiet personal prayer." Nevertheless, coach Kennedy opted to continue praying at the 50-yard line and further disrupted the School District's ability to carry out essential operational functions because of the resulting "increased volume of threatening calls and other interruptions" the School District began receiving. [ix]

For example, after one game, the School District reported receiving calls from Satanists who "intended to conduct ceremonies on the field after football games if others were allowed to." Kennedy also met with community members, including making multiple media appearances. In addition to his many media appearances, Kennedy also publicized his specific intent to pray at the 50-yard-line during the October 16 homecoming. [x]

Screenshot from public access Case Syllabus depicting Kennedy's 2015 'prayer circle' with media in attendanceCharnell Gilchrist

Even after reviewing an Amicus Brief, SCOTUS ruled in favor of Kennedy, stating, "Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment . . . on a mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination. Mr. Kennedy is entitled to summary judgment on his First Amendment claims." [xi]

Supreme Court Overturns Landmark Case Roe v. Wade and Shocks With Decision in West Virginia v. EPA

In a similar decision that shook the Nation, SCOTUS ruled in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization overturning Roe v. Wade which stated abortion was a woman's constitutional right. So now, instead of Federal protection of a woman's right to an abortion, individual states will have the right to decide the legality and parameters for allowing abortions within their borders. [xii]

Finally, as if the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the disregard of the Establishment Clause as it relates to a student's right to be free from religious impression or coercion, weren't enough, SCOTUS continued down the road less traveled, sharing yet another astonishing opinion in West Virginia v. EPA. [xiii]

In this case, SCOTUS struck down the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) alleged Clean Power Plan. The Clean Power Plan would have required power plants to either reduce their carbon emissions or fund the cost to change to a renewable energy option. [xiii]

Interpreting law using what is referenced as the "major questions doctrine" allows the now Republican-appointed supermajority Court to strike down an agency's regulation when there are serious economic effects. The SCOTUS can also strike down a rule when Congress did not explicitly grant such authority to the agency. [xiv]

This third ruling has generated criticism, with many citing the potential for abuse by businesses seeking to avoid cooperation within their own country. The ability to challenge agency regulations with such ease leaves many questions unanswered and reasonable uncertainty regarding future rights in many individuals' minds. [xv]

Potential Implications for California Residents

Although California is known for its progressive, ahead-of-its-time legislation providing broad protection to individuals, the state is not entirely immune to the potential recourses from the recent SCOTUS rulings. Thankfully, California climate rules are stated not to be undercut by the SCOTUS' EPA ruling. [xvi]

Moreover, California's Air Resources Board members commented that the verdict only highlights that "the state's policies and regulatory agencies now play an even more critical role in the fight against climate change." [xvi]

On the other hand, although California contends to maintain its stance on affording women the right to abortions, the ruling may create a similar strain on the state. An equal pressure could be seen when Texas initially enacted its abortion ban resulting in a mass exodus of women seeking abortions in neighboring states. [xvii]

Although California has pledged to be a haven for those seeking abortions, to what extent can the state provide services as a safe haven without detrimentally impacting the rights of its residents. Despite this seeming like a distant issue, getting ahead of the potential pitfall may be a wise decision for the state to maintain its budget surplus while remaining a lifeline to those unable to receive care in their home states.


[i] Kennedy v. Bremerton Sch. Dist., 142 S. Ct. 857 (2022)

[ii] Ballotpedia Editorial Staff, Certiorari, (2022)

[iii] Kennedy v. Bremerton Sch. Dist., 142 S. Ct. 857 (2022)

[iv] Id.

[v] Ian Millhiser, The Supreme Court hands the religious right a big victory by lying about the facts of a case, (Jun. 27, 2022)

[vi] Kennedy v. Bremerton Sch. Dist., 142 S. Ct. 857 (2022)

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Org., No. 19-1392, 2022 U.S. LEXIS 3057 (June 24, 2022)

[xiii] West Virginia v. EPA, Nos. 20-1530, 20-1531, 20-1778, 20-1780, 2022 U.S. LEXIS 3268 (June 30, 2022)

[xiv] Charlie Savage, Supreme Court Strips Federal Government of Crucial Tool to Control Pollution, (Jun. 30, 2022)

[xv] Id.

[xvi] Nadia Lopez, California climate rules won't be undercut by Supreme Court's ruling, experts say, (Jun. 30, 2022)

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