Supreme Court to hear case of coach who prayed after games in defiance of school district

Adding another major religion and public education case to its roster, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear an appeal from a former public high school football coach in the state of Washington who was removed from his position for praying in the field in defiance of his supervisors.

The case of Joseph A. Kennedy has become a cause celebre in conservative legal circles, and the granting of his appeal by the High Court comes as no surprise. In 2019, when the coach’s case went to court at a preliminary stage, four conservative judges expressed sympathy for his arguments and suggested that a federal appeals court had a “troublesome” understanding of the free speech rights of public school educators.

Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. said in the 2019 statement that the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco had suggested in an opinion “that a coach’s duty to serve as a good role model requires the coach to refrain from any manifestation of faith religious, even when the coach is clearly not on duty.

“The suggestion that even when off duty, a teacher or coach cannot engage in any outward manifestation of religious faith is remarkable,” Alito wrote, in a statement regarding the court’s decision not to not support Kennedy’s case at that time due to some undeveloped facts. Questions. Alito’s statement was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh.

An ongoing controversy over post-game prayers.

Some of the facts in the coach’s case have been a point of contention. Kennedy was the assistant varsity football coach and head coach of the junior varsity team at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Wash., in the fall of 2015 when his postgame prayers sparked controversy.

Bremerton district officials informed Kennedy that he could give inspirational talks to team members before and after games, but could not lead or encourage student prayers, which the district believed he could. be coercive for students. The coach complied for several weeks, but sought accommodation with the district to continue his post-game prayers. The school district dismissed his view that his job responsibilities ended with the football game.

When the coach continued to pray on the pitch at the end of two more games, the district placed him on administrative leave and he did not seek to renew his contract.

The coach sued the school district asking for reinstatement as a coach and a ruling that he had the right to pray on the field after games.

After the Supreme Court denied review of Kennedy’s appeal of a preliminary injunction against him in 2019, a federal district court ruled that the “risk of constitutional liability associated with Kennedy’s religious conduct” was the “sole reason” the district had suspended the coach.

A 9th Circuit panel, in March 2021, again ruled in favor of the school district, and the full 9th ​​Circuit last July declined to rehear the case amid a flurry of strong written opinions. A dissenting judge, Ryan D. Nelson, said that “the mere fact of allowing religion to express itself independently in a school setting never was and is not an establishment of religion.”

But another 9th Circuit judge, Milan D. Smith Jr., noted that the coach had courted publicity and support for his defiant midfield prayers.

“I personally find it more than a little ironic that Kennedy’s ‘everyone is watching me pray’ organized public prayers (which spawned this multi-year litigation) so clearly flout the instructions found in the Sermon on the Mount on the proper way to pray,” Smith wrote. , who quoted the Gospel according to Saint Matthew.

Coach receives support from states, church groups and some former NFL players

Kennedy’s call to the Supreme Court begins by simply stating that he “lost his job as a football coach at a public high school because he knelt down and said a silent prayer by himself in midfield after the game was over. “.

The appeal, from First Liberty Institute and former U.S. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement, points out that “four judges have already recognized that the free speech claim in this case, on its own, is ‘troubling’.” .

“This court should … confirm that a public school does not own all on-the-job expressions its teachers or coaches may make around students,” the appeal states, “and that the First Amendment does not require schools purge from the public sphere everything that, in one way or another, partakes of the religious.

Kennedy had the support of memoirs from friends of the court at the 24-state petition stage, several church groups, and two former professional football players, Steve Largent (also a former congressman) and Chad Hennings.

The District of Bremerton, represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, urged judges not to take up the case, arguing that Kennedy’s appeal misrepresents or ignores the facts of the record and raises only a hypothetical question as to whether public educators ever had the right to silent prayer in school.

“The district … faced a stark choice: either let its employee dictate the course of school events — even if doing so threatened the safety and religious freedom of students — or take the necessary steps to curb the practice,” the memoir states. district of Bremerton. . “This case is about a school district’s authority to protect students when their employee does not work with them to find a reasonable accommodation.”

The filing even includes photos of Kennedy’s prayers on the field and the big rallies the coach has drawn.

The granting of review by the court in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (Case No. 21-418) comes at the time of adding the last cases that can be argued in the current legislature. But even if the court has room in its April session schedule to hear the case, it is not yet certain that will happen.

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