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The U.S. Supreme Court announced it will hear the case of a former Seattle-area football coach who was fired from his job because he refused to stop praying on the field.
Joseph Kennedy, a Marine veteran, was an assistant football coach for the Bremerton High School varsity team in 2008. Kennedy started a tradition where the team would kneel and pray together after games.
In 2015, a school administrator spoke with Kennedy about the tradition after an opposing team complained.
When told that he could pray separately from the students, Kennedy declined to change his practice, was put on paid leave, and then filed a lawsuit.
“I think I just might have been fired for praying,” Kennedy would later post on Facebook.
Lower courts sided with the school district. Now, the case has made its way to the nation’s highest court.
“Today, nearly eight years after being fired for praying by himself at the 50-yard line after a football game, Coach Kennedy filed his final brief with the U.S. Supreme Court,” Hiram Sasser, executive general counsel for First Liberty Institute, said in a statement after filing a brief last week.
“No teacher or coach should lose their job for simply expressing their faith while in public,” Kelly Shackelford, president, and CEO of First Liberty, who is representing the case, said.
“By taking this important case, the Supreme Court can protect the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of punishment,” he added.
“Paul Clement, former U.S. Solicitor General, partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP, and First Liberty volunteer attorney said, ‘We look forward to presenting the Coach’s case, which goes to the heart of the First Amendment, to the Justices,'” the Daily Wire reported. “Joe Kennedy’s case, now six years after the events, has led to renewed optimism by the coach who still desires to return to the football sidelines.”
“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,” Kennedy said in the statement.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State criticized the decision in a statement.
“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,” Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser said.
“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.
“Public schoolchildren and their families – like all of us – have a constitutional right to believe as they choose and be treated equally by their public schools, regardless of their beliefs. The Bremerton School District fulfilled its legal duty to respect their fundamental rights,” Laser continued.
Richard B. Katskee, a lawyer for the Bremerton School District, argued the school had the right to require that its employees refrain from public prayer if students were likely to feel coerced into participating.
“He insisted on audible prayers at the 50-yard line with students,” Katskee said of Kennedy. “He announced in the press that those prayers are how he helps these kids be better people.”