Supreme Court to Rule on Religious Freedom
A high school coach was fired for public prayer. His case will now go before the Supreme Court as he fights for freedom of religion.
From Fox News. Joseph Kennedy likes to think of himself as a “big brother” of sorts to the many students he has mentored over the years as a high school football coach….
But the former Washington state resident is now in perhaps the biggest fight of his life, one that has taken him all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in a religious liberty dispute over the limits of exercising one’s faith in public.
The nine justices will hear oral arguments Monday on whether the local school district properly suspended Kennedy from his job at Bremerton High School, after he refused to stop praying on the field at the end of games.
A central question: Is a public school employee who says he is praying by himself while at school and visible to students engaging in “government speech” that lacks any First Amendment protection….
The school district argues that the act was anything but a private moment of reflection, and that it continually involved public prayers with students, some of whom felt pressured to join in the display.
“No child attending public school should have to pray to play school sports,” said Americans United for Separation of Church and State president Rachel Laser, the group representing the school district. “No student should ever be made to feel excluded– whether it’s in the classroom or on the football field– because they don’t share the religious beliefs of their coaches, teachers or fellow students.”
ACT OF FAITH
Kennedy is an 18-year Marine veteran, who also worked at the local naval shipyard in Bremerton, about 20 miles west of Seattle across the Puget Sound. But high school football is his passion. Returning to his alma mater in 2008, Kennedy started as an assistant varsity coach.
“The prayer after the football game — that was just myself, I would just take a knee at the 50-yard line after football game,” Kennedy told Fox News’ chief legal correspondent Shannon Bream. “After a few months, the kids would say: Coach, what are you doing out there? And I just said I was thanking God for what you did. They asked if they could join. And I said: it’s America, a free country, you do what you want to do. And that’s how that kind of started.”
What began as a 15-30 second Christian blessing “quietly and alone” evolved into something more over time. Players and coaches from his and opposing teams would join him in prayer on the field….
In their legal brief with the high court, lawyers for the school district argued, “Parents should not have to fear that the messages their children receive in Sunday school will be undermined by competing religious messages Monday morning in English class — or Friday night on the football field.”
But Jeremy Dys, an attorney with First Liberty Institute, the group representing Kennedy, said no coercion or instruction was involved.
“Coach Kennedy simply wants to pray by himself at the 50-yard line. That’s the commitment he made before God,” Dys told Fox News. “They [school leaders] refused to honor that. And now here we are seven years later, arguing about whether or not someone could be fired from their job just because the public can see him engage in a private act of worship.”
School officials say they repeatedly tried to accommodate Kennedy. After formal complaints in 2015, they sent a letter requesting he stop praying with students in the locker room and on the field. The school said he could “engage in religious activity, including prayer, so long as it does not interfere with job responsibilities.”
Kennedy initially agreed, but after a month he partially reversed his stance and resumed his original practice of on-field prayers immediately after games.
The coach was then put on paid leave. Both sides dispute whether he was later fired or decided eventually not to return for the following season.
Lower courts have all ruled for the school. The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals concluded that by kneeling and praying in view of students and parents, Kennedy “spoke as a public employee, not as a private citizen, and his speech therefore was constitutionally unprotected….”
Fast-forward three years, and with a fortified 6-3 conservative majority, the high court may now be poised to rule for Kennedy….
The current dispute has triggered a high-stakes political divide….
Supporting legal briefs have been filed in this current appeal by former Vice President Mike Pence, and separate coalitions of former professional football players, 24 conservative states, and GOP senators….
On the larger constitutional questions, lawyers for the school district say personal faith is sullied when mixed with government….
The case is Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (21-418). A ruling is expected by late June.
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