Eight current, former NFL players file brief in support of fired Bremerton coach Joe Kennedy

TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 16: Nick Foles #9 of the Philadelphia Eagles and Peyton Barber #25 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pray together after the game at Raymond James Stadium on September 16, 2018 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

A group of eight current and former NFL players, including Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles, have filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in support of fired Bremerton High School football coach Joe Kennedy.

The friend-of-the-court filing by the players supports Kennedy, who was fired by the Bremerton School District in 2015 for praying on the field after games. The court case has made its way to the Supreme Court and is expected to be heard this spring.

Foles, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, and former players Joe DeLamielleure, Phil Olsen, Christian Ponder, Drew Stanton, Harry Swayne and Jack Youngblood were the players attached to the filing.

"Each amicus attended and played football for at least one public high school or university before turning pro," the brief stated. "Each amicus also voluntarily exercised his constitutional right to pray before, during, and after games in which he competed on behalf of such schools – at times alone, at times with other players, and at times with coaches. Each amicus thus has first-hand experience with the environment in which this case arose. And each amicus can testify firsthand to the power of prayer – in generating gratitude for the opportunity to play, promoting high ideals of sportsmanship, protecting the safety of those who take the field, bridging personal, political, and racial divides among players, and ultimately in glorifying God. 

"For all these reasons, amici support protection for the free speech rights of public school coaches like Joe Kennedy."

After games had ended and after both teams’ players and coaches met at midfield to shake hands, Kennedy would kneel and offer a silent or quiet prayer.

His practice evolved, however. Students came to join him, and he eventually began to give motivational speeches that often included religious content and a short prayer.

The school district says that when it learned what Kennedy was doing it tried to accommodate him, asking that he pray separately from students. But the district says Kennedy ultimately declined to change his practice, was put on paid leave and sued. Lower courts sided with the school district.

Joe Kennedy case: Supreme Court to hear case of praying ex-football coach

The Supreme Court will hear the case of a former Bremerton, Washington football coach who was removed from his job because he refused to stop praying on the field.

In 2016, a U.S. District Court judge in Tacoma declined to issue a preliminary injunction requested by Kennedy. He was asking the court to have the school district immediately rehire him.

In 2017, the Ninth Circuit ruled that Kennedy took advantage of his position when he prayed on the field after games, and he was not entitled to immediately get his job back.

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case. Four conservative justices at the time said they were interested in the case and the legal issues it raises. The lower courts rejected Kennedy's claim that the school district violated his free speech rights by putting him on paid leave after he continued to pray at midfield following games.

In 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton ruled in favor of the Bremerton School District's motion for summary judgment. Kennedy's lawyers appealed.

In a statement issued in January after the court agreed to hear the case, Kelly Shackelford, the head of First Liberty Institute, which is representing Kennedy, said, "No teacher or coach should lose their job for simply expressing their faith while in public."

"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," Shackelford said.

But the head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represents the school district, said it had followed the law, calling Kennedy’s actions "coercive prayers."

"This case is not about a school employee praying silently during a private religious devotion. 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," Rachel Laser said in a statement.

The case has drawn broad national attention, including when former President Donald Trump featured Kennedy at a campaign event in Virginia in October of 2016.

Student leaders also invited Seattle Satanists to attend a game in what they described as an effort to get the school district to clarify its policy.

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