Can a private citizen pray in public? Supreme Court to hear case of coach sidelined 6 years ago

by WorldTribune Staff, January 16, 2022

A Washington state high school football coach who was fired for holding a private prayer at the 50-yard-line after each game will have his case heard by the Supreme Court.

The high court on Friday said it would hear Joseph Kennedy’s case in April, his attorney’s said, according to a report by Mark Kellner for the Washington Times. Kennedy was fired as Bremerton High School’s football coach in 2015.

Coach Joseph Kennedy

“Six years away from the football field has been far too long. I am extremely grateful that the Supreme Court is going to hear my case and pray that I will soon be able to be back on the field coaching the game and players I love,” Kennedy said in a statement.

After the last game of the 2015 season, school officials said the prayer, which Kennedy had been conducting at midfield after each game for seven years, violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which bars governments from establishing a state religion.

The district offered to allow Kennedy to pray in an off-field press box or “an athletic facility,” but banned his praying on the field.

In January 2019, the Supreme Court declined to take up Kennedy’s case, instead asking the lower courts to continue to develop the factual record. In a statement issued with the 2019 denial, Justice Samuel Alito said, “The 9th Circuit’s understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future.”

Noting the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals also objected to Kennedy’s praying in the bleachers at a game at the school, Justice Alito wrote, “The suggestion that even while off duty, a teacher or coach cannot engage in any outward manifestation of religious faith is remarkable.”

In July, the appeals court denied a review by all of its judges, prompting Kennedy’s appeal to the Supreme Court.

“No teacher or coach should lose their job for simply expressing their faith while in public,” said Kelly Shackelford, president and chief executive of First Liberty, the public interest law firm representing Kennedy. “By taking this important case, the Supreme Court can protect the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of punishment.”

The school district is represented by attorneys at D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“No child attending public school should have to pray to play school sports. No student should ever be made to feel excluded – whether it’s in the classroom or on the football field – because they don’t share the religious beliefs of their coaches, teachers or fellow students,” said Rachel Laser, the group’s president and chief executive.

Although students occasionally gathered around coach Kennedy, Kennedy said he never invited their participation.

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