The Washington Post
Supreme Court to hear case of high school coach who prayed with players
The Supreme Court said Friday it will take up the case of a high school football coach who lost his job after a contentious battle with the school district over his postgame midfield prayers.
The court’s new conservative majority has been protective of individual religious rights, and it was not a surprise it took the case of Joseph Kennedy’s legal fight with the Bremerton, Wash., school district, which began in 2015.
It was one of a handful of cases the court accepted Friday as it fills out its docket for the current term. Barring an emergency, the court hears oral arguments through April, and then attempts to finish opinions in the argued cases by the end of June.
Not on Friday’s list was a challenge to the admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The court did not announce any action on the latest suits to urge the justices to overturn its decisions allowing the limited use of race in higher education enrollment.
Kennedy has drawn support from religious conservatives across the country. An assistant football coach at Bremerton High School, he said he was “called” to offer private prayer after games, where he was often joined by players and coaches of both teams.
After a complaint from an opposing coach in 2015, Kennedy and school officials battled over accommodations of his religious exercise. He served on a year-toyear contract, and did not return to the school.
He has lost twice before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, although the case split the judges.
Kennedy is represented by the religious legal group First Liberty Institute, and Bremerton by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Their reactions were representative of the divide over the case.
“No teacher or coach should lose their job for simply expressing their faith while in public,” said Kelly Shackelford, president and chief executive of First Liberty.
He added, “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.”
Rachel Laser, president and chief executive of Americans United, said Kennedy and his lawyers have repeatedly misrepresented the facts.
“This case is not about a school employee praying silently during a private religious devotion,” Laser said in a statement. “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.”
The case reached the Supreme Court in 2019, when justices declined to get involved, saying there was more for lower courts to decide.
But four justices made clear that they were interested in the issue and that they were suspi
“No teacher or coach should lose their job for simply expressing their faith while in public.” Kelly Shackelford, president of First Liberty Institute representing the plaintiff Joseph Kennedy
cious of the Ninth Circuit’s early rulings. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the Ninth Circuit’s language could “be understood to mean that a coach’s duty to serve as a good role model requires the coach to refrain from any manifestation of religious faith — even when the coach is plainly not on duty. I hope that this is not the message that the Ninth Circuit meant to convey.”
Alito was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh.
In his current petition to the court, Kennedy’s lawyers wrote: “Those cautionary words appear to have had the exact opposite of their intended effect.”
The case is v.