US Supreme Court to hear praying coach’s appeal

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A high school football player prays on the field.CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON, USA (Catholic News Service) – The US Supreme Court announced January 14 it would hear an appeal from a former high school football coach in Washington state who says his rights to freedom of speech and religion were violated when he was fired in 2015 for praying on the football field after team games.

Joseph Kennedy, former assistant coach at Bremerton High School, outside of Seattle, is asking the court to reverse a lower court decision in 2017 that sided with the school district. The decision said Kennedy had acted as a public official by praying with athletes who wished to join him in prayer in view of other students and parents.

Kennedy first appealed his case to the Supreme Court in 2019. The justices chose not to consider it but didn’t rule it out completely. Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, wrote in a separate concurrence that the time wasn’t right to review the case because it had “unresolved factual questions.”

First Liberty, a law firm specializing in religious freedom cases, is representing Kennedy, described on its website as “Coach Joe.” It also asks for support for Team Kennedy, saying it’s “game on” now at the Supreme Court.

It is not clear if the court will hear oral arguments in this case in April or next term.

Kennedy, who said he made a personal commitment to thank God after each game, win or lose, since he started coaching in 2008, made it a point to kneel by the sideline after the game by himself for quiet prayer. Eventually he was joined in this practice by many of the team members.

One player’s parent said their son, an atheist, felt like he had to join in prayer or face potential loss of playing time.

School district officials told Kennedy to stop the postgame prayers in keeping in line with the Constitution’s establishment clause prohibiting the government from favouring one religion over another. Kennedy asked the school to just give him 15 seconds to kneel on the field for silent prayer when the players were off the field, which the school district officials denied, calling it a violation of policy. Instead, the school district offered to give the coach a private space to pray or said it would allow him to pray after the crowd had left the stadium.

Read more here.

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