Supreme Court to hear case of Joe Kennedy, high school football coach sacked for praying on field

Supreme Court to hear case of Joe Kennedy, high school football coach sacked for praying on field

The Supreme Court said Friday it would hear the case of a Washington state high school football coach who was sacked for praying on the field after games.

Joseph Kennedy, who was barred from coaching football at Bremerton High School in 2015, will have his case heard by the high court in April, his attorneys said. The coach was a graduate of the school who coached there from 2008 to 2015.

“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,” Mr. Kennedy said in a statement.

Mr. Kennedy said he was suspended from the final game of the season in 2015 by the Bremerton School District. School officials said Mr. Kennedy’s private prayer at the 50-yard line — which had been allowed for seven years beforehand — violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which bars governments from establishing a state religion. Students occasionally gathered around him, although he said he never invited their participation. The district offered to let him pray in an off-field press box or “an athletic facility,” but forbade his praying on the field.

The Supreme Court declined to take up the case in January 2019 and asked the lower courts to continue to develop the factual record. In a statement issued with that denial, Justice Samuel Alito said, “The 9th Circuit’s understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future.” 

Noting the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals also objected to Mr. Kennedy’s praying in the bleachers at a game at the school, Justice Alito wrote, “The suggestion that even while off duty, a teacher or coach cannot engage in any outward manifestation of religious faith is remarkable.”

Justice Alito was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil M. Gorsuch and Brent Kavanaugh in the statement.

The case returned to the lower courts, where a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit appeals court sided with the school district. In July, the appeals court denied a review by all of its judges, prompting Mr. Kennedy’s appeal to the Supreme Court.

“No teacher or coach should lose their job for simply expressing their faith while in public,” said Kelly Shackelford, president and chief executive of First Liberty, the public interest law firm representing Mr. Kennedy. “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.”

The school district is represented by attorneys at District-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“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,” said Rachel Laser, the group’s president and chief executive.