SCOTUS to Hear Case Monday of HS Coach Who Lost Job For Praying After Games

SCOTUS to Hear Case Monday of HS Coach Who Lost Job For Praying After Games SCOTUS to Hear Case Monday of HS Coach Who Lost Job For Praying After Games The US Supreme Court. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty)

By Brian Freeman | Sunday, 24 April 2022 06:32 PM

The Supreme Court on Monday will weigh a former high school football coach’s attempt to get his job back and be permitted to pray at midfield after games, CBS News reported on Sunday.

Joseph Kennedy, a former coach for the Bremerton High School football team in Washington state, filed suit against the school district in 2016, saying it violated his constitutional rights to free speech and free exercise by issuing a directive that he could not pray at the center of the field after games.

Lower courts have ruled against him for years and the Supreme Court initially did not agree to hear his case in 2019.

Kennedy said he was inspired to pray immediately after games on the 50-yard line out of gratitude for keeping the players safe, for fair play and for spirited competition. His act inspired players to participate in the prayer, which evolved into motivational speeches with religious references.

Kennedy insisted to CBS News that "it seems so simple to me: It's a guy taking a knee by himself on the 50-yard-line, which to me doesn't seem like it needs a rocket scientist or a Supreme Court justice to figure out. I didn't want to cause any waves, and the thing I wanted to do was coach football and thank God after the game."

But for those who back the school district’s directive, Kennedy was in the wrong, with Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, telling CBS News that "when a coach uses the power of his job to be in a place and have access to students at a time when they're expected to encircle him and come to him, that's an abuse of that power and a violation of the Constitution. Religious freedom is not the right to impose your religion on others."

The school district told Kennedy that his talks with students must be entirely secular, and future religious activity he takes part in must not interfere with his job duties, be separate from any student activity and may not have participation from students.

Kennedy's lawyer rejected those conditions, saying that "no reasonable observer could conclude that a football coach who waits until the game is over and the players have left the field and then walks to mid-field to say a short, private, personal prayer is speaking on behalf of the state. Quite the opposite, Coach Kennedy is engaged in private religious expression upon which the state may not infringe."

However, when Kennedy did kneel at the 50-yard-line to pray, he was joined by some players from both teams, according to CBS News.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton ruled against Kennedy, saying that "while public schools do not have unfettered discretion to restrict an employee's religious speech, they do have the ability to prevent a coach from praying at the center of the football field immediately after games."

Following more legal losses by Kennedy, the Supreme Court finally agreed in January to take up the dispute.