On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of a high school football coach who lost his job for conducting post-game, on-field prayers, in a session that will lead to a potentially pivotal ruling in the realm of religious freedom, as Fox News reports.
At the center of the case involving Joseph Kennedy of Bremerton, Washington, is the question of whether the public school district in which he was employed was justified in suspending him from his job because he declined to stop praying after the games he coached, or whether such an outcome was a violation of his First Amendment rights.
Lengthy litigation battle
The controversy began back in 2015, when Kennedy, then at the helm of the Bremerton High School football team, was subjected to discipline by the school district for holding silent prayers at midfield for 15-30 seconds after games in an activity that began as a solitary one, but which ultimately grew when several players asked if they could join.
District officials warned Kennedy of possible violations of an existing policy against school staff members indirectly encouraging or discouraging religious activities among students, and while the parties dispute whether the coach was ultimately fired or chose not to return, a lawsuit was filed alleging a violation of Kennedy’s constitutional rights.
Kennedy has suffered a series of defeats in the lower courts, with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals determining that the act of kneeling on the field and praying in plain sight of students and their parents, the coach “spoke as a public employee, not as a private citizen, and his speech therefore was constitutionally unprotected.”
Though the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2019, it did compel the appeals court to revisit the questions presented in the matter, with four justices on the conservative wing of the panel expressing concern that the lower court’s “understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future.”
Indeed, earlier this year, the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in Kennedy’s case, as the Washington Examiner noted at the time, and with the current 6-3 conservative majority on the bench, chances are stronger than ever that the coach may indeed prevail.
The school district’s actions against Kennedy came once parents began expressing concern that their children felt pressured to participate in the prayers to receive playing time and that doing so ran counter to their own beliefs.
As such, attorneys for the district wrote in their brief to the Supreme Court, “Parents should not have to fear that the messages their children receive in Sunday school will be undermined by competing religious messages Monday morning in English class – or Friday night on the football field.”
“If the court rules the wrong way, teachers and coaches could pressure students to pray in every public school classroom across the country, argued Rachel Laser of Americans United for Separation of Church and States, a group representing the district, as CBS News noted.
On the other side of the coin, however, are those who believe that a loss for Kennedy would require public school teachers to shed their religious beliefs at the schoolhouse door, something they contend the Constitution does not demand.
What is beyond dispute, however, is that the eventual ruling in this case, which is expected by the end of June, could well have far-reaching implications for the faithful all across this country and is something that deserves close attention.