Former football coach’s court case to be heard before U.S. Supreme Court

Joe Kennedy, Bremerton School District fought over right to pray on sidelines after football games

PORT ORCHARD – Former Bremerton High School coach Joe Kennedy, who was fired for dropping to his knee and praying following football games at the 50-yard line, will have his religious freedom case heard before the U. S. Supreme Court.

The high court, which now has a conservative majority, this month agreed to hear the case. Under its current makeup, the Supreme Court has been expanding religious protections, according to court observers.

The case, titled Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, began in 2015 when the Bremerton School District barred assistant high school coach Kennedy from delivering prayers to players and other students mid-field after games, according to lawyers representing the school district.

District officials said they attempted to accommodate Kennedy’s desire to pray at work in ways that would be lawful and respect students’ religious freedom, however, the coach refused to stop his post-game prayer activities. The coach was then put on paid administrative leave and he decided to not reapply for his position, according to school district attorneys.

Instead, Kennedy sued the school district, claiming he had a right to pray on the 50-yard line immediately after games with students.

“No teacher or coach should lose their job for simply expressing their faith while in public,” said Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty Institute, which is representing Kennedy. The institute is a legal organization centered on defending religious liberty for Americans.

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

In a statement released by his attorneys, the former coach added: “Six years away from football 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.”

Meanwhile, attorneys representing the school district say the district took the action needed to protect students from “coercive prayers.”

“No child attending public school should have to pray to play school sports. No student should ever be made to feel excluded — whether it’s in the classroom or on the football field – because they don’t share the religious beliefs of their coaches, teachers or fellow students,” said Rachel Laser, who is the Americans United for Separation of Church and State president and CEO.

Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington D.C., that educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation. The group joined the school district’s legal team last year.

“The Bremerton School District followed the law and protected students’ religious freedom when it stopped its football coach from holding coercive prayers with players on the 50-yard line after high school football games,” Laser said.

“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,” Laser added.

School district attorneys said in court papers that one athlete felt “compelled to participate” in the post-game prayers and believed if he didn’t, he “wouldn’t get to play as much.”

Kennedy lost his case in the lower courts. The district court and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the school district, holding that the coach’s prayers constituted governmental speech thus was not protected by the First Amendment.

Early on, the Supreme Court turned down hearing the case since it was still being developed in the lower courts. However, four conservative justices — Justice Samuel Alito joined by Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – indicated an interest in taking up the legal issues of the case later, indicating that, “The Ninth Circuit’s understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence and former Seattle Seahawks’ player Steve Largent had filed “friend-of-the-court” briefs urging the Supreme Court to take the prayer case, according to Kennedy’s attorneys.

Arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court are expected to be heard in April.