The Supreme Court agreed Friday to hear the case of a Christian high school football coach who was let go from his job for praying on the field after games.
Former coach Joe Kennedy's legal fight with the Bremerton, Washington, school district began in 2015, and the case eventually reached the Supreme Court in 2019, when justices declined to take it and said the case was for lower courts to decide.
Kennedy, who coached football for eight years, told the Washington Examiner he began having solitary postgame prayers at the 50-yard line after each game as students gradually began joining him.
"A couple of the kids came up to me and they said, 'Hey, coach, what are you doing up there?' And I said, 'I'm just giving thanks to God for what you guys just did out there on the football field.' They asked if they could join. 'Of course,' I said. 'This is America, of course, you could join,'" Kennedy said.
When school officials learned about Kennedy's prayers, they sought to compromise by offering him time to pray before and after the games away from the stands where nobody could see him. Kennedy objected to the terms and continued praying after games on the 50-yard line until he was eventually placed on paid leave.
"No teacher or coach should lose their job for simply expressing their faith while in public," said Kelly Shackelford, CEO of First Liberty Institute, a group helping to represent Kennedy.
The former coach contends the district violated his First Amendment rights, though the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year ruled against Kennedy, arguing local school officials would have violated a ban on government establishment of religion if they allowed the postgame prayers to continue.
A secularism advocacy group representing the school district, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, maintains that school officials followed the law and described Kennedy's actions as "coercive."
A brief filed to the Supreme Court by Americans United cites an incident in September 2015 when a coach from a different school told Bremerton's principal that Kennedy "had asked him and his team to join" in prayer after a game during the previous season. The brief also cites concerns from other players' parents reporting their children "participated in the team prayers only because they did not wish to separate themselves from the team."
"This case is not about a school employee praying silently during a private religious devotion," said Americans United CEO Rachel Laser in a press readout. "Rather, this case is about protecting impressionable students who felt pressured by their coach to participate repeatedly in public prayer, and a public school district that did right by its students and families."
However, Kennedy's attorney, Mike Berry, cited a Bremerton School District public Q&A held during an investigation of the postgame prayers and told the Washington Examiner, "There was no evidence of any coercion ever."
"There is indeed no evidence that students have been directly coerced to pray with Kennedy," according to the school district's Q&A document, which later cites a position upheld in 2006 by the 9th Circuit that a public employer's interests in avoiding such establishment clause violations “outweigh the resulting limitations on [an employee’s] free exercise of his religion at work."
Republican-appointed Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, and Brett Kavanaugh have voiced skepticism of the 9th Circuit's decision, with Alito arguing the ruling's language could "be understood to mean that a coach’s duty to serve as a good role model requires the coach to refrain from any manifestation of religious faith — even when the coach is plainly not on duty."
Berry said the highest court is likely to hear arguments over the case sometime in April and that a decision will be reached in June, at the same time many high-profile cases are slated to be decided, including a lawsuit surrounding Mississippi's ban on abortions after 15 weeks of gestation.
Source : https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/supreme-court-agrees-to-hear-lawsuit-over-ex-football-coach-praying-on-field883