The Supreme Court on Monday heard a case regarding a high school football coach who says he was fired because he prayed after his team’s games.
As The Daily Wire reported, Joseph Kennedy served in the Marine Corps and was an assistant football coach for the Bremerton High School (BHS) varsity team in Washington state in 2008. He began to kneel and pray after the football games, and some students decided on their own to pray with him. In 2015, a school administrator approached the coach about the topic after an opposing team complained about the prayer.
An investigation was carried out and then Kennedy was put on administrative leave and banned from “participating in any capacity in the BHS football program.”
Lower courts previously did not side with the coach, and the Supreme Court had previously decided against taking up the case, but then agreed to hear it in January.
A main question in oral argument was whether the coach’s speech was protected because he was praying on his private time, or if it fell under his role as a coach at a public school, and therefore, would not be protected speech.
During the questioning, it appeared that the high court might be leaning towards the coach’s side in the case, as the justices presented complex hypothetical situations.
Paul D. Clement, one of Kennedy’s lawyers, told Justice Clarence Thomas that they are pursuing both a free speech claim and a free exercise claim.
Clement pressed that the school was concerned with the endorsement of a religion rather than the coercion of students, noting that the school district fired Kennedy over endorsement worries.
He said Kennedy’s suspension violated the First Amendment and “ignored…precedents that make clear that a school does not endorse private religious speech just because it fails to censure it.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch wondered what should be done about the fact that “[m]any school districts and municipalities around the country continue to operate on this endorsement idea.”
Clement noted that because school districts “continue to make this mistake” is a reason that endorsement cases should be overruled.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked about players who are afraid that if they don’t participate, they won’t be as favorable to the coach.
Clement pointed out how that type of concern isn’t specific to religion, with which Kavanaugh agreed, but the justice also pointed out how it’s hard to deal with the suspicion that parents will inevitably have that their child wasn’t picked for something because of his or her lack of participation in the prayers.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett presented a scenario in which the coach ran a Christian youth group, and players might feel pushed to participate because they thought they would get more time on the field.
Clement said the school could create a neutral policy if there was a concern with the group, but added, “at a certain point, the responsibility of the school is to teach the important lesson that private speech is protected even for teachers and coaches.”