By CASEY HARPER
THE CENTER SQUARE SENIOR REPORTER
(The Center Square) — A football coach in Washington state who was fired for praying on the field after games took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court Monday, when oral arguments were made in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District after a years-long legal battle.
Coach Joseph Kennedy began praying briefly at the 50-yard line at the end of his football games in the fall of 2008. Some students asked if they could join Coach Kennedy, and the post-game prayer became a tradition until the fall of 2015, when Bremerton School District launched an investigation into the practice.
Initially, the district asked the coach to stop praying, and he complied. He later asked for a religious accommodation, then prayed again after a game in October of that same year. Immediately, the school district banned Coach Kennedy from doing any “demonstrative religious activity” that is “readily observable to … students and the attending public.”
After the ban, Coach Kennedy prayed again, this time alone.
He was subsequently fired and soon took his case to court, arguing that being a school employee does not nullify his First Amendment right to exercise his religious beliefs. Now, years later, his case is before the Supreme Court.
The case could set major precedent and make more room for prayer in schools, bringing clarity to where and when a school district could object to faculty and staff engaging in prayer.
The justices grilled both sides during oral arguments, raising questions about whether the case would be different if the prayer, the timing or the location of the praying were different.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued Coach Kennedy’s actions put “a kind of undue pressure, a kind of coercion, on students to participate in religious activities…”
Coach Kennedy’s legal team said the First Amendment protects his religious expression and that employers cannot violate those rights.
“Banning a coach from praying, just because he can be seen by the public, is wrong and violates the Constitution,” said Kelly Shackelford, president, CEO and chief counsel at First Liberty Institute, which represents Kennedy. “No American should be forced to choose between their faith and the job they love. We are hopeful the court will allow Coach Kennedy to once again do what he promised God he would do — kneel at the 50 yard line after a game in which he coaches to say a quiet, personal prayer of thanks.”
Many rallied around Coach Kennedy after his firing.
“Faith, family, and football — that’s what we support in Texas. We believe that the U.S. Supreme Court will protect Coach Kennedy’s First Amendment free speech and religious freedom,” said Jonathan Saenz, president and attorney for Texas Values. “No coach should be fired for a voluntary prayer.”
Other states and national groups have taken sides on the case as it could set a nationwide precedent for prayer in schools.
“After a high school football game, Coach Kennedy quietly took a knee and prayed on the field,” Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said. “He was fired for his actions. His termination was wrong and unconstitutional.”
Casey Harper works at The Center Square’s Washington, D.C., bureau.