Supremes hear case of coach fired by school for praying

The case of a high-school football coach, a Christian, who knelt at the 50-yard-line after each game, win or lose, to thank God was argued Monday before the U.S. Supreme Court.
File photo

‘No American should be forced to choose between their faith and the job they love’

Bob Unruh
WND News Center

The case of a high-school football coach, a Christian, who knelt at the 50-yard-line after each game, win or lose, to thank God was argued Monday before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Kelly Shackelford, president of First Liberty Institute, said, “Banning a coach from praying, just because he can be seen by the public, is wrong and violates the Constitution. No American should be forced to choose between their faith and the job they love. We are hopeful the court will allow Coach Kennedy to once again do what he promised God he would do – kneel at the 50-yard-line after a game in which he coaches to say a quiet, personal prayer of thanks.”

Joe Kennedy lost his job as a football coach in Bremerton, Washington, when the school demanded he relinquish his religious rights and stop praying after games.

The New York Times posted an opinion piece that said the court’s majority “seemed to be searching on Monday for a narrow way to rule in favor of a former high-school football coach who lost his job for praying at the 50-yard line after his team’s games.”

But it described the case as “complicated by factual disputes” over the coach’s actions and “the shifting rationales offered by the school district … for disciplining him.”

Paul Clement argued on behalf of Kennedy that his client wanted only to offer a brief, silent prayer of thanks after the team’s games.

But a lawyer for the district, Richard Katskee, charged that the school had the right to demand employees not pray “if students were likely to feel coerced into participating,” something Kennedy has stated he avoided.

Several justices pointed out that the district earlier had claimed that the prayers would present the perception that the school was endorsing religion.

The opinion piece explained, “Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked whether Mr. Kennedy could have prayed aloud while standing with his arms outstretched. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked whether Mr. Kennedy would have been disciplined for protesting the invasion of Ukraine, climate change or racial injustice.”

That there were such questions wasn’t a surprise, since Justices Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas earlier had issued a statement, when the high court declined to intervene several years ago, that the issue of free speech rights in a lower court’s ruling was troublesome.

At the time, the case was coming from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the four judges said, “The Ninth Circuit’s understanding of the free speech rights of public-school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future. What is perhaps most troubling about the Ninth Circuit’s opinion, is language that can be understood to mean that a coach’s duty to serve as a good role model requires the coach to refrain from any manifestation of religious faith — even when the coach is plainly not on duty.”

That court, however, ruled repeatedly against Kennedy, giving school officials permission to control his prayers.

That lower court ruling, written by Judge Milan D. Smith Jr., claimed Kennedy “led the team in prayer in the locker room before each game, and some players began to join him for his postgame prayer, too, where his practice ultimately evolved to include full-blown religious speeches to, and prayers with, players from both teams after the game, conducted while the players were still on the field and while fans remained in the stands.”

However, among the 11 judges who disagreed with Smith was Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, who pointed out, “It is axiomatic that teachers do not ‘shed’ their First Amendment protections ‘at the schoolhouse gate.’ Yet the opinion in this case obliterates such constitutional protections by announcing a new rule that any speech by a public-school teacher or coach, while on the clock and in earshot of others, is subject to plenary control by the government.”

The Washington Examiner explained the case began in 2015 when the district suddenly made an issue of the coach’s brief – sometimes only a few seconds long – prayers after games. They apparently had been going on for several years without issue.

In 2019 the high court declined to intervene, concluding it was for the lower courts to resolve, but shortly after a lack of resolution did, in fact, convince the Supreme Court to accept the case.

The school district argued that Kennedy’s prayers “interfered” with the students’ own religious freedoms.

One of the leftists on the bench, Sonia Sotomayor, demanded to know, “Why can’t an employer tell an employee what they’re permitted to do, personal or otherwise?”

Kennedy previously confirmed that he had been praying the brief prayers for years, and some students asked him if they could join him. His response was, “This is America — of course you could join.”

The decision on the case could significantly impact school censorship of teacher statements in a number of ways, and is expected to be announced sometime this summer.

An analysis by Liberty Counsel, which often works on religious speech cases, said, “it appears the justices were skeptical of the school district’s claim that Coach Kennedy’s speech was government speech.”

“Today, the high court focused on two questions: (1) Whether a public school employee who says a brief, quiet prayer by himself while at school and visible to students is engaged in government speech that lacks any First Amendment protection; and (2) whether, assuming that such religious expression is private and protected by the free speech and free exercise clauses, the establishment clause nevertheless compels public schools to prohibit it,” the organization explained.

“A majority of justices appeared to lean in favor of Coach Kennedy. The attorney for Bremerton High School had a difficult time responding to Justice Gorsuch’s question about whether a coach doing the sign of the cross was government speech which the district could restrict. Justice Thomas and others pressed the question of whether the district would censor a person kneeling for non-religious reasons,” the organization explained.

Liberty Counsel Chairman Mat Staver said, “This case is an opportunity for the high court to affirm that every American has the right to engage in individual religious expression without fear of punishment.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Receive comment notifications
Notify of
guest
8 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Scott Hooper
Scott Hooper
2 months ago

I’m really looking forward to reading the decision.

On the one hand, we all need to be able to participate in our religion–or lack thereof–as we please, at least outside the control of government. Trying to ban medical procedures for religious views, for e.g., is imposing religious views, and is just wrong. Government should be out of this area.

But in this case the person is both a mentor and leader to his students and, as a public employee, violates the separation clause by essentially promoting religion to his students.

On the other hand, he is also a very public representative of the school, and aught not promote religion using that platform–again, because of the separation clause.

His claim of “Having to choose… between religion and his job” is just emotional propaganda. He could go home and pray after the games; he only does it in such a public forum for, well, some other reason we do not know. But there is nothing about being asked to keep your religion out of your [government] job that is wrong or unconstitutional.

Note, I am rather anti-religion, but also very pro-religious freedom, just like I am anti-mass-shooting, yet pro 2nd.

YMMV

Dave
Dave
2 months ago
Reply to  Scott Hooper

“I am rather anti-religion, but also very pro-religious freedom, just like I am anti-mass-shooting, yet pro 2nd.”

You are a very confused individual, and it is interesting how you constantly try to disguise your liberal nature by throwing in just a hint of conservative views. I get a headache every time you post a comment

Curious question though. You say you are anti-religion, but pro-religious freedom. What exactly does that mean? If he pulled out his prayer rug and faced towards Mecca, would that be different? Pro-religious freedom or anti-religion?

Not religion, but still another sensitive topic. What if that coach were to have decided that all the players were going to wear rainbow socks for the game? Would you be for or against that? There would obviously be players that were for and against that.

I get tired of my freedoms having to end where you liberals feel you freedoms begin. This country has been going down hill ever since people like you started trying to erase God from everything.

Jack Burton
Jack Burton
2 months ago
Reply to  Dave

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”…. that’s from our founding document. So, based on your comment, this country has been going down hill since the founders drafted the Constitution? And which God should be “un-erased” from everything? Yahweh? Allah? Satan? Just the one you believe in? The US was not founded as a theocracy, and despite what you may here in some echo chambers has never been a Christian nation. The irony here, if one is open to hearing it, is the belief that CRT curriculum that doesn’t even exist is indoctrinating kids but showing kids in a public school setting the correct way to worship a deity is somehow not indoctrination.

Dave
Dave
2 months ago
Reply to  Jack Burton

Curious how the 1st amendment reads if you actually state all of it, not just the part you want

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”

Dave
Dave
2 months ago
Reply to  Jack Burton

“CRT curriculum that doesn’t even exist”……..Really??? So all around the country, CRT, which is highly promoted amongst liberals and highly criticized by conservative, has been a huge talking point for over a year now, is made up?

Also, there is only one God with a capital “G”. All others are lower case “g” for a reason

Jack Burton
Jack Burton
2 months ago
Reply to  Dave

I should have been more specific. The CRT curriculum in public K-12 schools doesn’t exist…. the CRT curriculum in graduate level law, sociology, history, and political science classes at various universities does exist. Teaching kids that America has both great triumphs and embarrassing missteps is not CRT. Acknowledging that racism exists and has a real impact on our fellow citizens is not CRT. The whole CRT culture war only exists because people saw an opportunity rile up their base and get them to show up at the polls…. ALEC (or our local ALEC distribution provider, The Washington Policy Center) is great at made up controversies like this.

I must have missed the part of the article outlining how they told him he wasn’t allowed to practice his religion, or “freely exercise” it if you will. I thought the problem was that he was praying at a public school funded by tax dollars. I personally practice a religion that requires me to howl at the full moon while naked and covered in honey. I guess I’ll see you at the next local high school football game. If you see a fat, sticky, hairy guy being arrested while howling at the moon don’t forget to explain to the cops that that I’m just exercising my 1st Amendment rights…. we want to be consistent in our defense of religion.

Only one god with a capital “G”? I’ve never seen it spelled flying spaGhetti monster before, but I’ll take your word for it.

Wolfie
Wolfie
2 months ago
Reply to  Dave

Amen Dave. I have said it before. Everytime a conservative slightly leaning article comes up, Scott has to jump in and be the negative voice. There is nothing wrong with that coach taking a personal knee after every game. If it bothers you, don’t watch. He didn’t ask anyone to join him and its a public field. Should be end of discussion.

Jack Burton
Jack Burton
2 months ago
Reply to  Wolfie

“Conservative slightly leaning article comes up”? Really? Are you under the impression that there are other types of articles here? Can you give me an example of a “liberal” article that has been printed on CCT? It’s been weeks since the New England Journal of Medicine released the results of a study on ivermectin showing that it had no impact on hospitalizations or deaths from Covid-19. Unfortunately, that’s not what their audience wants to hear so it gets ignored. Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine are still promoted under the guise of “Clark Covid Health”, so at least there’s consistency.

This is the perfect example of our country’s polarization. Scott may disagree with you, or the author, or even CCT as a whole. Disagreeing with you doesn’t make him negative. You and I could probably spend an entire afternoon listing the things we disagree on. That doesn’t make either of us negative, nor does it make us enemies. I’m as guilty as anyone of adding fuel to the partisan fires, but at the root of the problem is the “us” versus “them” mentality.