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The Supreme Court announced on Friday that it will hear oral arguments in the case of a former Washington high school football coach who was fired over his tradition of postgame prayers.
“No teacher or coach should lose their job for simply expressing their faith while in public,” Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty, who is representing the case, said in a statement.
BREAKING! SCOTUS announced it will hear Coach Kennedy’s case. This is the final play of a long legal battle. He was fired for silently praying on the football field. A victory could impact all government employees and also change the way courts consider religious freedom. pic.twitter.com/kYgl5SZ7pS
— First Liberty Institute (@1stLiberty) January 14, 2022
“By taking this important case, the Supreme Court can protect the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of punishment,” he added.
Paul Clement, former U.S. Solicitor General, partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP and First Liberty volunteer attorney, said, “We look forward to presenting the Coach’s case, which goes to the heart of the First Amendment, to the Justices.”
Joe Kennedy’s case, now six years after the events, has led to renewed optimism by the coach who still desires to return to the football sidelines.
“Six years away from the football field has been far too long. I am extremely grateful that the Supreme Court is going to hear my case and pray that I will soon be able to be back on the field coaching the game and players I love,” Kennedy said in the statement.
Not everyone was pleased with the decision. Americans United for Separation of Church and State released a statement on Friday opposing the Supreme Court’s announcement.
“No child attending public school should have to pray to play school sports. 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,” Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser said.
“The Bremerton School District followed the law and protected students’ religious freedom when it stopped its football coach from holding coercive prayers with players on the 50-yard line after high school football games,” Laser added. “Public schoolchildren and their families – like all of us – have a constitutional right to believe as they choose and be treated equally by their public schools, regardless of their beliefs. The Bremerton School District fulfilled its legal duty to respect their fundamental rights.
The Daily Wire reported on Kennedy’s case when it was turned down in 2019:
Kennedy was hired by Bremerton High School (BHS) in 2008 and fired in 2015, with a contract that “entrusted” him “to be a coach, mentor and role model for the student athletes,” according to court documents. He was expected to “exhibit sportsmanlike conduct at all times” and informed him that, as coach, he was “constantly being observed by others.”
Kennedy also led prayers with the team before and after games, but court documents note the tradition predated his employment and that his religion didn’t require him to lead such prayers, but did require him to give thanks after each game.
As Kennedy kneeled and prayed after each game, members of the team began to join him until a majority of the team was also praying. Members of the opposing team were also invited to join. Kennedy eventually began giving mid-field motivational speeches after the games that included religious messaging.
On September 17, 2015, Bremerton School District (BSD) sent Kennedy a letter saying he would be investigated for breaking the school’s policy on “Religious-Related Activities and Practices,” which stated that students may “engage in private, non-disruptive prayer at any time not in conflict with learning activities” and “[s]chool staff shall neither encourage nor discourage a student from engaging in non-disruptive oral or silent prayer or any other form of devotional activity.”
Kennedy cooperated with the investigation and was told by BSD Superintendent that his prayers after the game were “problematic,” and that he must stop including religious content in his motivational speeches. He was told he could continue to practice his religion, but not when people could see him.
Kennedy stopped praying on the field while students and fans were around for several weeks, but on October 14, 2015, he asked for a religious accommodation under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, stating that “his official coaching duties ceased” after the game was over.
Watch the full report from First Liberty below: