SCOTUS to hear case of Washington state high school football coach fired for praying
Bremerton High School football coach Joe Kennedy was fired after praying on-field at the end of games for seven years.
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The Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on Monday in the case of a Washington state high school football coach who was fired for praying after games.
Kennedy v. Bremerton School Board began in 2016 after Bremerton High School football coach Joe Kennedy had fought with the school to continue praying on the field following games after being allowed to for seven years.
Kennedy, a retired Marine, coached the football team from 2008 to 2015 and would kneel and quietly pray at midfield after every game.
While he initially prayed alone, after several games students and players joined him, even inviting players from opposing teams.
Eventually, Kennedy started giving short motivational speeches to the players who gathered after games, which sometimes included religious content and a short prayer.
After seven years of Kennedy praying on the field after games, a school administrator from a visiting team complimented Bremerton High School's principal on the coach's practice. The school district subsequently investigated the situation, directed Kennedy to cease the ritual, denied him a religious accommodation request, implemented a new policy to stop him from praying publicly on the football field, then suspended and fired him for continuing to do so.
According to the school district, Kennedy could not pray publicly following the end of a game while still being on duty as a coach. The district offered to let him pray in "private locations within the school building or athletic facility, or ... press box."
Kennedy filed a lawsuit with First Liberty Institute against the Bremerton School District in a federal district court in 2016, asking that he be allowed to continue coaching as the case made its way through the courts. The district court, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court all denied Kennedy's request.
However, the Supreme Court sent the case back down to the district court for further litigation. The district court and the Ninth Circuit both decided for the school district. The lawsuit was refiled with the Supreme Court in September 2021, which in January decided to hear the case.
"[T]his case presents an opportunity for the Supreme Court to review — and possibly rectify— legal precedent that has been harmful to religious freedom for decades," First Liberty said last month.
"Public employers, especially school districts, often misinterpret their civic obligations under the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment," argued the religious liberty legal defense group. "But now, we'll be asking that the Court clarify the interaction of these clauses."
The nonprofit law firm added that "a ruling in Coach Kennedy's favor could impact public school employees nationwide, helping safeguard their constitutional rights and ensure they won't face a difficult choice between their careers and their faith."
In the Supreme Court's 2018 denial of Kennedy's request to continue coaching, Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh issued a statement of concern regarding the interpretation of public school teachers' First Amendment rights by the lower courts and the school district.
Alito, joined by the other three justices, wrote that while Kennedy's case focused on free speech, he also "still has live claims under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
In earlier lawsuits, First Liberty noted that despite suspending Kennedy for praying, the school allowed an assistant coach to engage "in a Buddhist chant near the 50-yard line" at the end of games.
"No teacher or coach should lose their job for simply expressing their faith while in public," said First Liberty President and CEO Kelly Shackelford when the Supreme Court decided to hear the case this year. "By taking this important case, the Supreme Court can protect the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of punishment."
Coach Kennedy is hopeful. "Six years away from the football field has been far too long," he said. "I am extremely grateful that the Supreme Court is going to hear my case and pray that I will soon be able to be back on the field coaching the game and players I love."
Numerous friend of the court briefs have been filed in the case by a wide range of organizations and individuals, including: NFL quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Nick Foles, 56 members of Congress, 27 state attorneys general, former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), The America First Policy Institute, Thomas More Society, Liberty Counsel, American Center for Law and Justice, Americans for Prosperity, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Chaplain Alliance For Religious Liberty, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty.
Parties filing briefs supporting the school district include: 13 states and the District of Columbia, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), National Education Association, Freedom From Religion Foundation, 11 Democratic House members, American Atheists, Inc., Religious and Denominational Organizations and Bremerton-Area Clergy, and Forum on the Military Chaplaincy and Former Members of the Military and Military Chaplaincies.
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