Supreme Court to hear case of praying coach who lost his job after kneeling on the field

The case is one of several before the high court this term dealing with the intersection of government and religion.

John Fritze
  • Kennedy claims the school violated his First Amendment rights by not re-upping his contract.
  • A federal appeals court ruled that the coach was acting as a public employee when he prayed after games.
  • The Supreme Court is likely to rule in the case early this summer.

WASHINGTON – From coach Joseph Kennedy's perspective, the yearslong fight over his decision to pray on the 50-yard line following his team's football games is clear cut: He made a promise that he would offer his thanks on the field – win or lose. 

"That's where I made my commitment to God before I even took the coaching job," Kennedy told USA TODAY in an interview. "There on the field of battle."

But the constitutional questions raised by Kennedy's prayers have been anything but simple, implicating a decades-old struggle over how far public schools must go to accommodate the religious beliefs of employees and whether – at some point – they bump up against the notion of keeping church and state separate.

Those questions, and Kennedy's claim that Bremerton High School violated his First Amendment rights by declining to renew his contract following the prayers, will come before the Supreme Court for oral argument on Monday. It's one of several cases at the high court this term dealing with the intersection of government and religion.

A decision is expected this summer. 

One of the issues the justices must unknot is whether Kennedy was praying as a private citizen or as an assistant coach and school employee. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco ruled last year that Kennedy was acting as a public employee and that his prayers, therefore, were not protected by the First Amendment. 

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The Bremerton School District, located near Seattle, told the Supreme Court last year that school officials had heard from players' parents who said their children felt compelled to participate in the prayers. School officials said that they offered Kennedy time and space to pray before and after games, such as in the press box, but that he insisted on praying on the field – sometimes with students joining in. 

"For seven years this was Kennedy conducting prayer on the field, leading it, delivering it to the students," said Richard Katskee, vice president and legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is representing the school district.

The former coach put "himself on the 50-yard line and he makes a spectacle of things," Katskee said. "There's nothing about that that's personal or private."

Kennedy counters that the accommodations the school offered were impractical because the spaces that officials offered were "insanely far away from my players," making it difficult for him to perform his on-field duties as a coach. 

 "There were no accommodations that were feasible," he said.

"It was tough," he said, "to be taken away from the thing that you love."

The dispute made Kennedy, who was placed on administrative leave in 2015, a cause célèbre among religious conservative groups who asserted he was denied his free speech rights as a private citizen. As the controversy built, Kennedy was sometimes joined on the field after games by media and lawmakers. 

Kennedy's case made it to the Supreme Court once before, in 2019, as he sought to reclaim his job while the case continued. The court denied his appeal but four conservative justices wrote at the time that a lower court's ruling in favor of the school was "troubling" and that Kennedy's claims "may justify review in the future."

Some experts worry the case may offer the Supreme Court, on which conservatives hold a 6-3 majority, an opportunity to revisit decades-old precedent about school prayer. After all, they argue, if a football coach can offer a prayer with students after a game, what stops a teacher from reciting a prayer in a classroom before a lesson? 

The Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that public schools could not offer prayers, even if participation by students is voluntary. 

Kennedy's case, and another dispute this term dealing with public funding for religious schools, "really press this line between the sacred and the secular and whether it's possible to maintain an idea of secularity of government in the face of those who claim that any assertion of secularity is really a promotion of secularism," said Robert Tuttle, a law and religion expert at the George Washington University Law School.

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Others argue that's reading too much into the case. 

"This is not a case about reimposing prayer in public school classrooms," said Richard Garnett, director of the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School. "Instead, it is a case about protecting all individuals' right to speak freely – and to pray – in the public square."

The court has looked favorably on religious freedom claims in recent disputes over the First Amendment's establishment clause, which prohibits the government from becoming entangled with religion, and the amendment's free exercise clause, which guarantees the right to practice religion free of government interference.

In 2014, for instance, the court upheld a centuries-old tradition of offering prayers to open government meetings, even if those prayers are overwhelmingly Christian. In 2019, the court ruled that a Latin cross on government land outside of Washington, D.C., did not have to be moved or altered in the name of church-state separation. This term, the Supreme Court is also considering a case about a religious group that wants to raise a flag outside of Boston's city hall.