Dozens of GOP state attorneys general are pushing the Supreme Court to intervene in the case of a high school coach fired for praying after football games.
Joseph Kennedy, a former assistant football coach at Bremerton School District in Washington, was suspended in October 2015 after he refused to stop praying, as well as inviting players to pray with him, at the 50-yard line after every football game.
“While the district appreciates Kennedy’s many positive contributions to the BHS football program … Kennedy’s conduct poses a genuine risk that the district will be liable for violating the federal and state constitutional rights of students or others,” the school district wrote in a letter at the time.
Kennedy took legal action against the school months later, filing an official complaint in December 2015. Kennedy sued the school for violating his First Amendment rights, but lost the case in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals when the court ruled in the school’s favor.
“When Kennedy kneeled and prayed on the fifty-yard line immediately after games while in view of students and parents, he spoke as a public employee, not as a private citizen, and his speech therefore was constitutionally unprotected,” the court wrote in its decision, upholding the school’s policy against its staff encouraging or discouraging students to engage in religious behavior.
The attorneys general of 24 states filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court on Tuesday petitioning it to review Kennedy’s case. The petition was led by Arizona’s Mark Brnovich, Alaska’s Treg Taylor, and Texas’ Ken Paxton.
“The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Coach Joseph Kennedy’s religious discrimination claim against the school district, saying that because Coach Kennedy prayed in view of students, his prayers are considered government speech that the district can censor,” Paxton’s office said in a press release. “The coalition urges the Supreme Court to review and reverse that decision because of the serious First Amendment concerns it raises. The Ninth Circuit’s conclusion threatens to make everything a public employee does while on the clock into government speech. In turn, that would require public employers to control their employees’ every word in order to avoid liability.”
“The Ninth Circuit’s decision curtails the First Amendment liberties of public employees, which will deter individuals from seeking public employment to avoid being forced to give up their constitutionally protected liberties,” the statement continued.
The First Liberty Institute, a legal advocacy group representing Kennedy in the case, gave the history of the former coach’s court fight:
The Bremerton (WA) School District suspended, and later fired, Coach Kennedy over his silent, 15-second prayer. First Liberty Institute filed a lawsuit against the school district, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. A federal district court upheld Coach Kennedy’s termination. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concluded that, because Coach Kennedy could be seen by students and fans engaging in religious expression, the school lawfully terminated his employment and his silent prayers were not protected by the Constitution. In January 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States declined to review Coach Kennedy’s case but the case has returned to the District Court to answer some of the questions raised by the Justices. Upon re-hearing, the District Court and then Ninth Circuit again sided with the school district setting up a return to the U.S. Supreme Court.