Washington football coach prayer case goes to Supreme Court


FILE – Bremerton High assistant soccer coach Joe Kennedy, entrance, walks off the sphere along with his lawyer, proper, Oct. 16, 2015, after praying on the 50-yard line following a soccer sport in Bremerton, Wash. After dropping his teaching job for refusing to cease kneeling in prayer with gamers and spectators on the sphere instantly after soccer video games, Kennedy will take his arguments earlier than the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, April 25, 2022, saying the Bremerton School District violated his First Amendment rights by refusing to let him proceed praying at midfield after video games. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times by way of AP, File)


The clock ran down on the finish of the homecoming sport and spectators stormed the soccer subject, knocking over members of the highschool band — all to collect round an assistant coach as he took a knee in prayer, surrounded by uniformed gamers.

Six years later, after dropping his teaching job and repeatedly dropping in court docket, that former Washington state coach, Joe Kennedy, will take his arguments earlier than the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, saying the Bremerton School District violated his First Amendment rights by refusing to let him proceed praying at midfield instantly after video games. Four conservative justices have already expressed considerations with how his case has been dealt with.

Kennedy’s effort to get his job again helped earn him an look at a 2016 Donald Trump rally and rapidly turned a cultural touchstone, pitting public faculty staff’ non secular liberties in opposition to what his critics describe as longstanding ideas separating church and state and defending college students from non secular coercion.

Lawyers for the varsity district say officers had no drawback letting Kennedy pray individually from college students or letting him return to the sphere to hope after the scholars left. But permitting him to hope at midfield instantly after video games with college students there risked being seen as authorities endorsement of faith.

While Kennedy insists he by no means cared whether or not college students participated within the prayers and he by no means requested them to affix him, not less than one participant — anonymously — later reported taking part opposite to his personal beliefs, for worry of dropping taking part in time.

“This case is challenging well-established case law that has protected students’ religious freedom for decades, and that has been supported by conservative and liberal justices alike,” mentioned Rachel Laser, chief govt of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is representing the varsity district. “If the court rules the wrong way, teachers and coaches could pressure students to pray in every public school classroom across the country.”

For Kennedy’s supporters, the ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ holding within the case would pressure public faculty staff to drop their non secular identities on the schoolhouse door — one thing they are saying the Constitution doesn’t require.

“If a teacher prays over her lunch in the cafeteria and students can see her — just that little blessing over her salad — that’s enough to terminate that teacher, according to the school district,” mentioned Jeremy Dys, an legal professional with First Liberty Institute, which is representing Kennedy.

Kennedy, a former Marine whose day job was on the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, started teaching soccer at Bremerton High in 2008. He was new to faith and training, and mentioned he was impressed by the film “Facing the Giants” — a few Christian highschool soccer coach — to provide due to God “on the battlefield” after every sport.

What started as a solitary observe quickly attracted college students. He agreed, citing the district’s coverage of neither encouraging nor discouraging scholar prayer. Over the years he started main locker room prayers earlier than video games, in addition to group prayers and spiritual motivational talks at midfield after them.

The faculty district mentioned it didn’t study Kennedy was main gamers in prayer till it heard it from one other group’s coach in September 2015. Administrators instructed him he was to not take part in non secular actions with college students, and any of his personal non secular statement have to be both non-demonstrative or ought to happen with out college students.

For a month, Kennedy complied, the district notes in arguments to the court docket: He prayed on his personal, reminiscent of whereas college students have been singing the struggle tune, and the district let him be.

But Kennedy’s legal professionals then insisted he be allowed to renew his prior observe, describing it as a “personal” prayer protected by the Constitution whether or not or not college students joined him. Kennedy introduced he would resume praying at midfield after video games, and when he did so on the Oct. 16, 2015, homecoming sport, as Bremerton’s gamers have been in any other case occupied, spectators rushed to subject to affix him — as did members of the opposing group.

The district nonetheless didn’t fireplace Kennedy, however wrote to warning him. Given his prior statements and actions, his praying at midfield — on authorities property he may entry solely by advantage of his job — may very well be perceived as faculty endorsement of faith, exposing the district to potential legal responsibility, Superintendent Aaron Leavell wrote.

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

Kennedy prayed once more on the sphere after the subsequent two video games: first at a varsity sport the place nobody joined him, after which at a junior varsity sport the place he was joined by a state lawmaker. The district then positioned him on depart, and his contract was not renewed.

Kennedy’s legal professionals level out that he stopped participating in non secular exercise with Bremerton college students when requested. What he was truly suspended for was not delivering prayers to college students, however kneeling and praying rapidly by himself, they argue.

The federal decide who dominated in opposition to Kennedy, District Judge Ronald Leighton, in contrast his postgame conduct to a director who involves heart stage and prays on the finish of a college play: “A reasonable onlooker would interpret their speech from that location as an extension of the school-sanctioned speech just before it.”

As the case made its means via the courts, Kennedy misplaced at each flip. But when the Supreme Court declined to take the case at an earlier stage, Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh referred to as the ninth Circuit’s reasoning “troubling” and mentioned beneath it, “public school teachers and coaches may be fired if they engage in any expression that the school does not like while they are on duty.”

Ninth Circuit Judge Milan Smith steered a trainer who prays over lunch in a cafeteria doesn’t ship a public message the best way Kennedy did. Smith referred to as the narrative posed by Kennedy’s legal professionals — that this was a few public worker’s personal prayer — “deceitful.”

Kennedy mentioned he simply desires to get again to teaching.

“This thing has just been so blown out of proportion,” he mentioned. “Imagine a guy going out there and tying his shoe — you would never know the difference.”

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