Facts of the Case

Provided by Oyez

Joseph Kennedy, a high school football coach, engaged in prayer with a number of students during and after school games. His employer, the Bremerton School District, asked that he discontinue the practice in order to protect the school from a lawsuit based on violation of the Engagement Clause. Kennedy refused and instead rallied local and national television, print media, and social media to support him.


Kennedy sued the school district for violating his rights under the First Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The district court held that because the school district suspended him solely because of the risk of constitutional liability associated with his religious conduct, its actions were justified. Kennedy appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed.


  1. Is a public school employee’s prayer during school sports activities protected speech, and if so, can the public school employer prohibit it to avoid violating the Establishment Clause?


  1. The Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal; the Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression. Justice Neil Gorsuch authored the majority opinion of the Court.

    The District disciplined Coach Kennedy after three games in October 2015, in which he “pray[ed] quietly without his students.” In forbidding Mr. Kennedy’s prayers, the District sought to restrict his actions because of their religious character, thereby burdening his right to free exercise. As to his free speech claim, the timing and circumstances of Kennedy’s prayers—during the postgame period when coaches were free to attend briefly to personal matters and students were engaged in other activities—confirm that Kennedy did not offer his prayers while acting within the scope of his duties as a coach. The District cannot show that its prohibition of Kennedy’s prayer serves a compelling purpose and is narrowly tailored to achieving that purpose.

    The Court’s Lemon test, and the related endorsement test, are “abandoned,” replaced by a consideration of “historical practices and understandings.” Applying that test, there is no conflict between the constitutional commands of the First Amendment in this case.

    Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito filed concurring opinions.

    Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan joined.