OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today celebrated a big victory for religious freedom when the Supreme Court held 6-3 in favor of Coach Joe Kennedy in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District that “the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal” and that “the Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression.” This decision reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision that allowed Kennedy to be fired for silently kneeling and praying after school football games.
“Today’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of Coach Kennedy’s right to take a knee and pray at a football game ensures Americans know their First Amendment rights are preserved and protected,” said Lankford. “Oklahomans and all Americans of faith are grateful for our freedom to speak and practice our faith in public and in private in this nation, unlike in many countries around the world. I am glad the Supreme Court once again affirmed the purpose and tremendous value of the First Amendment. Thank you for standing up for the right to freely live your faith, Coach Kennedy, and for taking your case all the way to the highest court in the land.”
Kennedy was head coach for the Bremerton High School junior varsity football team and an assistant coach for the varsity team. After each game, he waited until the players cleared the field, then took a knee and silently prayed. Bremerton High School sent Kennedy a letter demanding he stop praying after games. In 2015, Lankford led a letter to the School District in support of Kennedy. Kennedy’s contract with Bremerton School District was not renewed, resulting in his termination.
Kennedy filed a lawsuit against Bremerton School District, which a federal district court dismissed. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit argued Kennedy’s prayers were not protected by the Constitution because he was praying as a public employee rather than in his private, personal capacity. In 2019, Kennedy asked the Supreme Court to review the case, and Lankford filed an amicus brief in support of Kennedy.
The Court denied review of the case, with a concurring statement by four Justices requesting more information. As such, the case went back to the lower courts. In March 2021, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit upheld the District Court’s decision that Kennedy’s silent, public prayers after football games violate the Establishment Clause, and the circuit court denied an appeal for review. In 2021 Lankford once again asked the Court to take up Kennedy’s case, and when the Court agreed, Lankford led his colleagues in filing another friend of the Court brief to support Kennedy’s right to live out his faith.