The Supreme Court late last week agreed to hear oral arguments in a religious liberty case regarding a high school football coach who was fired for praying on the field after games.
The case has taken several years — since 2015 — to be accepted by the highest court in the United States, and will require the justices to look at three parts of the First Amendment and how they pertain to public employees.
The case surrounds high school football coach Joseph Kennedy and Bremerton School District in the state of Washington. Kennedy, a devout Christian who began working at Bremerton High School in 2008, was fired from his role as varsity assistant coach and as the junior varsity head coach after he refused to quit praying on the 50 yard line in full view of the public following games.
Kennedy asserted that the school district violated the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The district also used the First Amendment to justify its argument, claiming that Kennedy’s prayers in view of the public and students following a school sanctioned event violate the Establishment Clause because his actions could be perceived as a district endorsement of religion.
Ultimately, Kennedy is asking the Court to decide whether a public school employee who “says a brief, quiet prayer by himself while at school and visible to students” is engaged in government speech that lacks First Amendment protections, and whether the Establishment clause “compels public schools to prohibit it.”
Since 2008, Kennedy, a Marine Corps veteran, made a commitment to God “to give thanks after every game — win or lose — for the opportunity to be a football coach for his players,” Kennedy’s representation, First Liberty Institute, wrote. At first he prayed on his own, but eventually some players voluntarily joined him, occasionally including players from other teams.
But in September of 2015, the district Superintendent, Aaron Leavell, sent a letter to Kennedy ordering him to stop praying, after a school administrator’s compliment of Kennedy’s leadership drew attention to his post-game prayers. Leavell wrote:
You many continue to provide motivational, inspirational talks to students before, during and after games and other team activity, focusing on appropriate themes such as unity, teamwork, responsibility, safety, endeavor and the like that have long characterized your very positive and beneficial talks with students. Your talks with students may not include religious expression, including prayer. They must remain secular in nature, so as to a void alienation of any team member.
In response, Kennedy sought representation from First Liberty Institute, a legal organization exclusively dedicated to defending religious liberty, and asked the school to make a religious accommodation according to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Coach Kennedy requested he be allowed to take 15 seconds after games to take a knee and pray when players were not on the field.
On October 23, the district denied his request. Kennedy continued to take a knee and pray after games, which Leavall said would warrant disciplinary action if Kennedy continued to engage in “demonstrative religious activity.” Kennedy was subsequently placed on paid administrative leave on October 28.
After the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) granted Kennedy a right-to-sue letter following charges of religious discrimination, First Liberty filed a lawsuit against the district.
A federal court dismissed the lawsuit, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit — widely considered the most liberal federal appeals court — ruled against Kennedy, saying he was praying as a public employee and risked violating the Establishment Clause.
In 2018, First Liberty filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the Ninth Circuit’s decision. While the Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2019, Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh said in a statement that the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning was “troubling” and that the Court would likely take the case if lower courts could first answer whether Kennedy had been fired because of his religion.
Both the district court and the Ninth Circuit again sided with the school district in 2021, though the Ninth Circuit confirmed Kennedy had been fired because he refused to stop praying on the field after games. Subsequently, Kennedy refiled at the Supreme Court, and this time, the justices agreed to hear the case.
In an exclusive statement to Breitbart News, General Counsel for First Liberty Institute Mike Berry said the case has “massive implications” for religious liberty in the United States.
“We are grateful the Supreme Court has agreed to review Coach Kennedy’s case. This case has massive implications for religious liberty for millions of Americans, and we are hopeful the Court will correct the injustice that occurred here,” Berry said.
Kennedy also reacted to the news, saying he hopes to return to the field soon. He said:
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.
The justices will hear oral arguments in April and are expected to make decision in the case by the end of June.
The case is Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, No. 21-418 in the Supreme Court of the United States.
Katherine Hamilton is a political reporter for Breitbart News. You can follow her on Twitter.
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