Supreme Court hears case of coach who lost his job after praying after the game

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday approved an appeal from a high school soccer coach who lost his job after defying school administrators by kneeling and praying at the 50-yard line after his team’s games.

The coach, Joseph A. Kennedy, said the actions of school administrators in Bremerton, Washington, violated his right to freedom of expression and the free exercise of religion. The officials replied that the school had the right to require its employees to refrain from public prayer.

When the Supreme Court declined to hear an earlier appeal in the case in 2019, four judges issued a statement challenging a preliminary ruling in favor of officials of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco.

“The Ninth Circuit’s understanding of free speech for public school teachers is troubling and may warrant a future review,” Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote. at the time. He was joined by Judges Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas.

“What is perhaps most disturbing about the view of the Ninth Circuit,” added Justice Alito, “is the language that can be understood to mean that a coach’s duty to serve as a good role model requires that the coach abstains from any manifestation of religious belief – even if the coach is clearly off duty.”

After further proceedings, a unanimous three-member jury from the Ninth Circuit again ruled against Mr. Kennedy, saying school officials had the right to ban his public prayers over possible violations of the government’s First Amendment ban on establishing religion. to prevent.

The entire Ninth Circuit declined to rehearse the case over the objections of 11 judges. The two sides strongly disagreed on how to characterize Mr. Kennedy’s actions

Judge Milan D. Smith Jr., the author of the panel’s opinion, wrote that “Kennedy made it his mission to weave religion into football.”

“He led the team in prayer in the locker room before every game, and some players also started praying with him for his post-game prayers, where his practice eventually evolved into full religious speeches and prayers with players from both teams after the game. performed while the players were still on the field and the fans remained in the stands,” Judge Smith wrote.

In response, Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain said the panel’s opinion had dragged matters backwards. “It goes without saying that teachers should not ‘cast off’ their First Amendment protections at the gate of the schoolhouse,” he wrote, citing a 1969 Supreme Court ruling. “Yet the opinion in this case overturns such constitutional protections by announcing a new rule that any speech by a public school teacher or coach, while on the clock and within earshot of others, is subject to plenary scrutiny by the government.”

Rachel Laser, the president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represents the school board, urged the judges to consider the best interests of students when hearing the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District case, no. 21-418.

“No child who attends a public school should pray to play sports at school,” Ms Laser said in a statement. “No student should ever feel left out — be it in the classroom or on the football field — because they don’t share the religious beliefs of their coaches, teachers or fellow students.”

Kelly Shackelford, the president of the First Liberty Institute, which represents Mr. Kennedy, said in a statement that “no teacher or coach should lose their job simply because they express their faith in public.”

“By taking this important case,” he said, “the Supreme Court can protect the right of every American to participate in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of punishment.”