US bishops back high school football coach in Supreme Court prayer case
NEW YORK – The U.S. Bishops’ Conference filed a friend of the court brief on its behalf March 2 in support of a former high school football coach who sued a school district after losing his job in 2015 for refusing to stop kneeling and praying at the fifty-yard line after games.
Joseph Kennedy, the coach, eventually sued the Bremerton School District in Washington state in 2016 over its stance that he couldn’t continue with his post-game ritual. The Supreme Court agreed to take up the case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District January 14.
“The constitution exists to protect public expressions of faith, not to prevent Americans from praying in public,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in a March 2 statement. “The idea that high school football players can handle a tough game but not the sight of someone kneeling in prayer at the end of the night is ridiculous.”
Becket filed the amicus curiae brief on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
The lower courts sided with the Bremerton School District. In 2016, a district court denied Kennedy’s preliminary injunction seeking the restoration of his job and an order requiring the school to allow him to pray silently at the 50-yard line after every football game. In 2017, the Ninth Circuit sided with the district court’s summary judgment in favor of the school district.
Kennedy, a Christian, coached at Bremerton High School – a public school – from 2008 to 2015. He began practicing kneeling and praying in midfield during his freshman year. It began with a silent one-on-one practice of about 30 seconds to “offer a brief, silent Thanksgiving prayer for player safety, sportsmanship and spirited competition,” according to court documents.
The practice has grown and evolved over time. What started as an individual act eventually turned into a post-match midfield motivational speech which included students, coaches and other participants from both teams. The speeches often delivered a message with religious content.
The school district learned that Kennedy was praying in the field in September 2015 and launched an investigation into the practice. School district superintendent Aaron Leavell then informed Kennedy that he could continue to give inspirational speeches, but “they must remain entirely secular in nature, in order to avoid the alienation of any member of the team.”
Kennedy initially capitulated, but eventually decided to resume the practice and clarified his intentions through various forms of media highlighting the situation nationwide.
The school district responded that it would agree to make a private location available for Kennedy — in the school, athletic facility, or press room — for him to pray before and after games. He could also wait for the stadium to empty. Kennedy refused and continued his practice.
Kennedy was eventually placed on administrative leave on October 26, 2015. He did not apply for a coaching job in 2016 after the season ended. He filed a lawsuit in August 2016, claiming his rights had been violated under the First Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“Kennedy’s attempts to bring the nation’s attention to his challenge to the district showed he was not engaging in private prayer,” the Ninth Circuit wrote in its 2017 summary. “Instead, he engaged in public discourse of an overtly religious nature in the performance of his duties.”
In response to the Supreme Court’s decision to take up the case, Rachel Laser, the leader of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represents the Bremerton School District, called on the Supreme Court to protect students’ First Amendment rights by asserting that the ruling school did the right thing.
“The facts of this case are clear: the high school players felt compelled to join in their coach’s public prayers at the 50-year-old line during public high school football games,” Laser said in a statement dated 23. February. “Our country’s fundamental principle of separation of church and state means that no one should ever have to choose between their religious freedom and being on the team.”
Windham, meanwhile, argues that the Supreme Court’s decision is clear.
“We hope the Supreme Court will confirm what any sane person knows: when a Christian coach kneels down to pray, or a Sikh teacher wears a kirpan, or a Muslim principal fasts during Ramadan, they are expressing their faith and not a religion,” Windham said.
The Supreme Court previously declined to reconsider the case in 2019 before accepting another appeal from Kennedy in January. The case is expected to go to trial this spring.
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