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

The Supreme Court said Friday it 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.

Former Bremerton High School coach Joe Kennedy’s lawyers say the religious beliefs of their client, who is Christian, "compelled him to give thanks through prayer at the conclusion of each game for what the players accomplished and for the opportunity to be part of their lives through football." 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.

Coach Kennedy kneeling at the fifty-yard line on the Bremerton High School football field. Photo credit: First Liberty Institute

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.

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In a statement issued Friday 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.

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The case is expected to be argued in the spring.

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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