WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sided with a football coach from Washington state who sought to kneel and pray on the field after games.
The court ruled 6-3 along ideological lines for Joseph Kennedy, an assistant coach for Bremerton High School's varsity football team and head coach of the junior varsity team for seven years.
Kennedy started coaching at the school in 2008 and initially prayed alone on the 50-yard line at the end of games. Students started joining him, and over time he began to deliver a short, inspirational talk with religious references. Kennedy did that for years and also led students in locker room prayers. The school district learned what he was doing in 2015 and asked him to stop out of concerns the district could be sued for violating students' religious freedom rights.
Kennedy stopped leading students in prayer in the locker room and on the field but wanted to continue kneeling and praying on the field himself after games. The school asked him not to do so while still "on duty'' as a coach after the game. When he continued, the school put him on paid leave. The head coach of the varsity team later recommended he not be rehired because, among other things, he failed to follow district policy.
Kennedy sued, and with the support of conservative activists, his case ended up at the Supreme Court.
During an oral argument, the court's three more liberal members compared Kennedy's prayers to the hypothetical prayers of other school officials, which would not be permitted. Members of the court's six-member conservative majority, meanwhile, asked questions comparing Kennedy's prayers to other, non-religious actions.
Justice Clarence Thomas asked how the school district would respond if rather than taking a knee for prayer, the coach took a knee on the field during the national anthem in "moral opposition to racism." Dissenting Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the decision "sets us further down a perilous path in forcing states to entangle themselves with religion.''
Monday, the justices ruled that the coach's prayer was protected by the First Amendment.
"The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike," wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch for the majority.
The case forced the justices to wrestle with how to balance the religious and free speech rights of teachers and coaches with the rights of students not to feel pressured into participating in religious practices. The outcome could strengthen the acceptability of some religious practices in the public school setting.
"This is just so awesome. All I've ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys," Kennedy said in response to Monday's opinion. "I'm 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."
Lawyers for the school district noted that Kennedy has moved to Florida and said it was unclear if he truly intends to move back across the country to Washington state.
In a statement, the Bremerton School District and its attorneys at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said the decision undermines the separation required by the Constitution. The school district said in a statement that it had "followed the law and acted to protect the religious freedom of all students and their families.''
The decision is the latest in a line of Supreme Court rulings for religious plaintiffs. In another recent example, the court ruled that Maine can't exclude religious schools from a program that offers tuition aid for private education, a decision that could ease religious organizations' access to taxpayer money.
ESPN's Michael Fletcher contributed to this report, and information from The Associated Press was used in this report.