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Supreme Court to Decide Coach's Right to Pray After Game

US Supreme Court weighs case involving a football coach's right to kneel and pray at the conclusion of a public school football game.
Supreme Court to Decide Coach's Right to Pray After Game

Since 2008, Joseph Kennedy, a coach for a Bremerton, Washington High School football team, would take a knee and say a prayer with his players at midfield at the end of each game. In 2015, a comment from another coach "prompted the athletic director, and later the superintendent, to order the coaching staff to stop praying with students," according to NPR. "Kennedy stopped his locker room prayers, but returned to praying right after the game, mainly at away games, with little fanfare."

By the time of the big homecoming game, Kennedy had retained lawyers from the First Liberty Institute, and in a letter to school officials, they said that the coach had a constitutional right to pray on the 50-yard line at the end of the game. "I fought and defended the Constitution, and the thought of leaving the field of battle where the guys just played and having to go and hide my faith because it was uncomfortable to somebody — that's just not America," he said in an interview with NPR.

"In the leadup to the game, Kennedy embraced his newfound celebrity, making repeated media appearances. 'It was a zoo,' said John Polm, Bremerton High's principal, describing the homecoming game. Attendance doubled, five TV stations showed up, and a group of Satanists unsuccessfully attempted to take the field to perform their own competing ritual," writes Nina Totenberg for NPR.

The Supreme Court ponders the right to pray on the 50-yard line (Nina Totenberg - NPR)

Excerpt from NPR: After the game, the back and forth between Kennedy's lawyers and the school district continued. The school district took the position that while it wished to accommodate Kennedy's private religious expression, it could not allow his midfield post-game prayers because such a public display at a school event would be perceived as the school's endorsement of religion. Two weeks later, the superintendent placed Kennedy on paid administrative leave, citing his failure to abide by the district's policy against encouraging or discouraging student religious expression. Kennedy did not apply for a new contract the following year.
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"The Supreme Court’s conservative justices seemed sympathetic Monday to a former high school football coach who lost his job after leading postgame prayers at midfield," writes Robert Barnes for The Washington Post, "but the path to a decision is complicated by both the coach’s actions and the school district’s purported reason for disciplining him."

Joseph Kennedy’s lawyer said the assistant coach was asking only for a private moment to take a knee and express gratitude to God on the gridiron after a game, while lawyers representing the Bremerton School District said officials had an obligation to protect students from being coerced into religious activity they did not want, according to The Washington Post.

Supreme Court majority sympathetic to coach who prayed at midfield (Robert Barnes - The Washington Post)

Excerpt from The Washington Post: It calls for examining the interplay between the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which forbids government endorsement of religion, and its free speech and free exercise clauses, which prohibit government restraints on the private observance of religion. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit sided with the school district. The judges cited Supreme Court precedent that public employees give up some of their First Amendment rights, because their speech can be construed as being that of the government. And the appeals court said that even if Kennedy’s prayers could be seen as private speech, the district could take action to avoid the appearance of an establishment clause violation.
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"At issue is whether the Bremerton, Wash., school district could regulate the coach’s religious expression because he was on the job or his prayers might appear to be endorsed by the district or coerce students to participate," writes Mark Walsh for Education Week about the April 25 arguments in the Kennedy s. Bremerton School District.

Key Takeaways From Praying-Coach Case While Supreme Court Deliberates (Mark Walsh - Education Week)

Excerpt from Education Week: There is a long chronology of events, especially involving games in the fall of 2015 when Kennedy took a knee at the 50-yard line right after the game. There are factual disputes about exactly what occurred at some of these games, as well as over the Bremerton school district’s sometimes-shifting rationales for its attempts to rein in the coach’s prayers. "One of my problems in this case was the parties seem to have different views of the facts," Justice Stephen G. Breyer said during the argument. "This may be a case about facts and not really much about law."
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