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06-2022

Supreme Court agrees to hear appeal of high school football coach stopped from praying after games

It is the latest religious freedom controversy to reach a conservative majority in the High Court that is moving to expand protections for religious believers.

The long-running affair concerns coach Joe Kennedy, who served as an assistant coach for Bremerton High School’s varsity football team and head coach of the school’s junior varsity squad in Washington. He alleged that his rights were violated when the school district barred him from praying at the conclusion of football games, potentially surrounded by students and community members.

The school district said it never disciplined her from offering silent, private prayer—a practice that began in 2008 when she was hired—but threatened to do so only if she prayed at the 50-yard line. When the players were asked for. The grounds and the crowd were still in the stands.

A picture of Kennedy kneeling in uniform with about 20 players in prayer is part of the record.

Kennedy lost his case at the district court level and before the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals. The court held that Kennedy’s prayer was equivalent to official speech not protected by the First Amendment.

The appeals court pointed out that the school district – prior to placing him on leave – offered to adjust his religious practice in such a way that it “would not be regarded as district support of religion” by providing that a private school within the school Make space available to him, or allow him to wait until the crows are finished before kneeling.

But Kennedy and his lawyers declined the accommodation. Kennedy did not apply for the 2016 coaching position.

In the first phase of the case, four judges suggested serious doubts about the lower court’s opinion that was against Kennedy. Justice Samuel Alito wrote at the time that the lower court’s “understanding of the rights of public school teachers to freedom of speech is disturbing and may justify a future review.”

Paul Clement, a Kennedy attorney, told the judges that the appeals court’s ruling was “impossible to reconcile First Amendment principles” and that “practically everything public-school teachers do during school hours or after-hours functions.” do or say official speech that the school may ban.

Clement said that Kennedy’s “brief, personal acts of religious expression were clearly not performed as part of the responsibilities of his job as an assistant football coach.”

Lawyers for the school district told judges that Kennedy’s prayer practice was “not personal at all.”

He said the school district was faced with a “radical choice” to continue with Kennedy’s actions, which it said “would threaten the religious freedom of students,” or take steps to stop the practice.

In court papers, he told the judges that a player felt compelled to participate otherwise he would not get to play as much. They say that Kennedy was told that he was free to engage in religious activities, including prayer, as long as it did not interfere with his job responsibilities. He could pray, the school district said, where students could see him, but he could not pray at school activities.

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