Supreme Court to hear case of Joe Kennedy, high school football coach who lost his job after praying on the field

The clock ticked down as the homecoming game ended and spectators stormed the football field, knocking down members of the high school orchestra – all to rally around an assistant coach as he took a knee in prayer, surrounded by players in uniform.

Six years later, after losing his coaching job and repeatedly losing in court, former Washington state coach Joe Kennedy will present his case to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, claiming the Bremerton School District violated his First Amendment rights by refusing to let him continue praying in midfield immediately after games. Four conservative judges have already expressed concern about the way his case has been handled.

Football coach praying
Joe Kennedy, former assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Wash., poses for a photo March 9, 2022, on the school’s football field.

Ted S. Warren/AP

Kennedy’s efforts to get his job back won him an appearance at a Donald Trump rally in 2016 and quickly became a cultural touchstone, pitting the religious freedoms of public school workers against what his critics describe as long-standing principles separating church and state and protecting students from religious coercion. .

School district attorneys said officials had no problem letting Kennedy pray separately from the students or letting him return to the field to pray after the students left. But allowing him to pray in midfield immediately after games with students there risked being seen as an endorsement of religion by the government.

While Kennedy insists he never cared if students participated in prayers and never asked them to join him, at least one player – anonymously – later said having participated contrary to his own beliefs, for fear of losing playing time.

“This case challenges well-established case law that has protected students’ religious freedom for decades and has been upheld by both conservative and liberal justices,” said Rachel Laser, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. , which represents the school district. “If the court rules the wrong way, teachers and coaches could pressure students to pray in every public school classroom across the country.”

Kennedy supporters say the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the case would force public school employees to drop their religious identity at the school gate — which they say the Constitution does not require.

“If a teacher prays during her lunch in the cafeteria and the students can see her — just that little blessing on her salad — that’s enough to fire that teacher, according to the school district,” said Jeremy Dys, attorney at First Liberty Institute, which represents Kennedy.

Joseph Kennedy, former Bermerton High School football coach (First Liberty Institute)

Kennedy, a former Marine whose day job was at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, began coaching football at Bremerton High in 2008. He was new to religion and coaching, and said he was inspired by the movie “Facing the Giants” – about a Christian high school football coach – to give thanks to God “on the battlefield” after every game.

What began as a solitary practice soon attracted students. He agreed, citing district policy not to encourage or discourage student prayer. Over the years, he began leading dressing room prayers before games, as well as group prayers and religiously motivated midfield talks after them.

The school district said it didn’t learn that Kennedy was leading players in prayer until it heard from another team’s coach in September 2015. Administrators told him that He was not to participate in religious activities with students, and any religious observance must either be non-demonstrative or must take place without students.

For a month, Kennedy complied, the district notes in its court case: He prayed alone, such as while the students sang the fight song, and the district left him alone.

But Kennedy’s lawyers then insisted that he be allowed to resume his previous practice, describing it as constitutionally protected “personal” prayer, whether students join him or not. Kennedy announced he would return to midfield prayer after games, and when he did so in the return game on October 16, 2015, when Bremerton players were otherwise busy, spectators rushed on the field to join him – just like the members of the opposing team.

The district still hasn’t fired Kennedy, but has written to warn him. Given his previous statements and actions, his prayer in midfield – on government property which he could only access by virtue of his job – could be seen as an endorsement of religion by the school, exposing the district to potential liability, Superintendent Aaron Leavell wrote.

“I want to re-emphasize that the District does not prohibit prayer or any other religious exercise for its employees,” Leavell wrote. “However, it must prohibit any conduct by its employees that would serve as an endorsement of religion by the district.”

Kennedy prayed again on the field after the next two games: first in a college game where no one joined him, then in a junior college game where he was joined by a lawmaker. State. The district then put him on leave and his contract was not renewed.

Kennedy’s attorneys point out that he stopped engaging in religious activities with Bremerton students when asked. What he was suspended for was not delivering prayers to students, but kneeling down and praying quickly on his own, they claim.

The federal judge who ruled against Kennedy, District Judge Ronald Leighton, likened his postgame behavior to that of a director who comes to center stage and prays at the end of a play. theatre: “A reasonable viewer would interpret his speech from this location as an extension of the school-sanctioned speech just before.”

As the case progressed through the courts, Kennedy lost at every turn. But when the Supreme Court declined to take the case to an earlier stage, Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh called the 9th Circuit’s reasoning “troubling” and said below, “teachers and public school coaches can be fired if they engage in any expression the school dislikes while on duty.”

Ninth Circuit Judge Milan Smith suggested that a teacher praying over lunch in a cafeteria doesn’t send a public message like Kennedy did. Smith called the narrative posited by Kennedy’s attorneys – that it was a public employee’s private prayer – “misleading”.

Kennedy said he just wanted to get back to training.

“This thing just got so over the top,” he said. “Imagine a guy going out and tying his shoe – you’d never know the difference.”

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