Joseph Kennedy, a former assistant coach for Bremerton High School’s football team, was told by the school’s administration to stop going to the 50-yard line after his team's games to take a knee and pray.
While he considered coaching his calling, after the school board in Bremerton, Washington, instructed him to stop his habit of praying on the field, he left the high school and sued. Lower courts have sided with the school district, claiming the board had not infringed on Kennedy’s First Amendment rights. However, the case went to the supreme court on Monday, April 25, where a decision still awaits. The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision by June.
The Supreme Court’s ruling will convey to citizens what role religion can have in public life.
How is the Supreme Court leaning?
Kennedy’s case was rejected at the district court level and before the9th US Circuit Court of Appeals.The court considered Kennedy's prayer governmental speech, which is not protected by the First Amendment.
“Kennedy spoke as a public employee when he kneeled and prayed on the 50-yard line immediately after games while in view of students and parents,” the court said.
The appeals court noted the school district offered to accommodate Kennedy’s religious practice in a way that “would not be perceived as District endorsement of religion.” The school offered to provide a private location in the school to pray or wait until the crowd subsided before taking a knee.
Kennedy, however, rejected their accommodations, stating, “They said I could pray as long as it didn't interfere with my coaching duties .. but the accommodations they gave me completely removed me for a long period of time away from the very job I had been hired to do,” he explained to CNN.
He continued, “There is nothing wrong with prayer — I don't care who you pray toward, if you have faith or do not have faith — you have the same rights across the board as all Americans of any belief.”
The Supreme Court’s conservative majority will most likely rule in Kennedy’s favor, along with possibly making a new statement regarding what role religion can play in a public setting.
Though Kennedy felt he only tried to offer a brief prayer, the school board believes students felt forced to participate in his prayer due to his role as a coach.
“I started out praying by myself,” he said. “I guarantee it was no longer than 10 seconds.”
Once athletes asked to join, Kennedy told them America was a free country. When students began participating, the school board became involved.
The community of Bremerton seems to be understanding toward Kennedy. Yet, the school board’sSupreme Court briefindicates a handful of residents found an issue with Kennedy’s prayers on the football field but felt reluctant to speak out.
Richard Katskee, a lawyer for the Bremerton School District, explained employees are prohibited from public prayer if it results in students feeling forced to join in. “He [Kennedy] insisted on audible prayers at the 50-yard line with students.”
He continued, “He announced in the press that those prayers are how he helps these kids be better people.”
Debates surrounding church and state
While critics of Kennedy believe his prayers blurred the lines between church and state, support trust the case violates free speech rights.
Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor conveyed their concerns about how students may feel forced to participate in Kennedy’s prayers.
“I'm going to just sort of suggest the idea of why the school can discipline him is that it puts some kind of undue pressure, a kind of coercion, on students to participate in religious activities when they may not wish to, when their religion is different or when they have no religion,” Kagan said.
On the other hand, Justice Brett Kavanaugh explained Kennedy never requested for his players to pray with him. “This wasn't 'Huddle up, team.'”
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. explored the possibility of whether Kennedy would have been penalized for protesting the crisis in Ukraine, racial injustice, or climate change. Justice Sotomayor pondered whether a public high school could punish “a coach who decides to put a Nazi swastika on their arm and go to the middle of the field and pray.”