A high school coach who was fired for praying at the 50-yard-line after football games is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to get involved and protect not only his religious liberty but also the freedoms of thousands of other teachers in the region.
Joe Kennedy, whose case has gained nationwide attention, was not retained as an assistant coach by Bremerton (Wash.) High School following the 2015 season after he prayed, multiple times, in violation of a district policy. Kennedy’s post-game prayers typically involved him kneeling silently at midfield.
Kennedy lost his case at the district court and at the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court declined in 2019 to get involved, although four of the justices expressed openness to hearing the case at a later date after the lower courts better developed the record. Those four justices at the time said the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning “is troubling and may justify review in the future.”
First Liberty Institute, which is representing Kennedy, hopes the high court is ready this time.
“No American should be forced to choose between their faith and the job they love,” said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel at First Liberty. “The Ninth Circuit’s opinion threatens the rights of millions of Americans who simply want to be able to freely exercise their faith without fear of losing their job. We hope the Supreme Court will right this wrong and restore Coach Kennedy to the football field where he belongs.”
Paul Clement, who was U.S. Solicitor General under President George W. Bush, also is representing Kennedy.
The Ninth Circuit ruled that the prayers violated the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause.
The petition to the Supreme Court says the Ninth Circuit’s opinion “has far-reaching effects for the hundreds of thousands of teachers in the Ninth Circuit.”
“[The Ninth Circuit’s decision] converts practically everything public-school teachers do or say during school hours or after-hours functions into government speech that the school may prohibit, thereby ensuring that teachers in the Ninth Circuit really do shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate,” the petition says. “It converts the Establishment Clause from a protection against state-imposed religion into a cover for suppressing private religious speech. And it eviscerates free-exercise rights in the process, leaving virtually no room in the Nation’s public schools for those who are not content to confine their religious beliefs to the privacy of their homes.”
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Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.