The clock ran out at the end of the homecoming game and spectators stormed the football field, knocking over members of the high school band, all to gather around an assistant coach as he knelt in prayer, surrounded by players. uniformed.
six years later,and losing repeatedly in court, former Washington state coach Joe Kennedy will make his case to the US Supreme Court on Monday, saying the Bremerton School District violated his First Amendment rights by refusing to let him continue praying in midfield immediately after games. Four Conservative justices have already raised concerns about how their case has been handled.
Kennedy’s effort to win back his job helped him win an appearance at a Donald Trump rally in 2016 and he quickly became a cultural touchstone, pitting religious freedoms for public school employees against what his critics describe as as long-standing principles that separate church and state and protect students from religious coercion. .
Attorneys for the school district say officials had no problem allowing Kennedy to pray separately from the students or to return to the field to pray after the students left. But allowing him to pray in midfield immediately after games with students risks being seen as government endorsement of religion.
While Kennedy insists he never cared if students participated in the prayers and never asked them to join him, at least one player, anonymously, later reported that he participated against his own beliefs, fearing waste game time.
“This case challenges well-established case law that has protected students’ religious freedom for decades and has been upheld by conservative and liberal judges alike,” said Rachel Laser, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represents the school district. “If the court rules incorrectly, teachers and coaches could push students to pray in every public school classroom across the country.”
For Kennedy supporters, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in the case would force public school employees to leave their religious identities at the school gate, something they say the Constitution does not. demands.
“If a teacher prays over her lunch in the cafeteria and the students can see her, just that little blessing on her salad, that’s enough to fire that teacher, according to the school district,” said Jeremy Dys, an attorney at First Liberty Institute. . that he represents Kennedy.
Kennedy, a former Marine whose day job was at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, began coaching football at Bremerton High in 2008. He was new to religion and coaching, and said he was inspired by the movie “Facing the Giants.” , about a Christian high school football coach—to thank God “on the battlefield” after every game.
What started as a solitary practice soon attracted students. She agreed, citing the district’s policy of neither encouraging nor discouraging student prayer. Over the years, she began leading locker room prayers before games, as well as group prayers and religious motivational talks in midfield after them.
The school district said it did not learn that Kennedy was leading players in prayer until it was heard from another team’s coach in September 2015. Administrators told him he was not to participate in religious activities with students, and that any Proper religious observation must be non-demonstrative or must occur without students.
For a month, Kennedy complied, the district notes in court arguments: He prayed alone, for example, while students sang the fight song, and the district left him alone.
But Kennedy’s lawyers later insisted that he be allowed to resume his former practice, describing it as constitutionally protected “personal” prayer, whether students joined him or not. Kennedy announced that he would pray again in midfield after games, and when he did so at the homecoming game on October 16, 2015, while the Bremerton players were busy, spectators rushed onto the field to join him, as did than members of the opposing team.
The district has not yet fired Kennedy, but wrote to warn him. Given his previous statements and actions, his midfield prayer on government property that he could only access by virtue of his job could be perceived as a school endorsement of religion, exposing the district to potential liability, the district wrote. Superintendent Aaron Leavell.
“I wish to emphasize again that the district does not prohibit prayer or other religious exercise by its employees,” Leavell wrote. “However, you must prohibit any conduct by your employees that serves as an endorsement of religion by the District.”
Kennedy prayed on the field again after the next two games: first at a varsity game where no one joined him, and then at a junior varsity game where he was joined by a state legislator. The district then placed him on leave and his contract was not renewed.
Kennedy’s attorneys say he stopped participating in religious activities with Bremerton students when questioned. What was actually suspended was not handing out prayers to students, but rather kneeling down and praying quickly alone, they argue.
The federal judge who ruled against Kennedy, US District Judge Ronald Leighton, likened his postgame behavior to that of a director who comes to center stage and prays at the end of a school play: “A reasonable viewer would interpret his speech from that place as an extension of the school-sanctioned speech just before.
As the case progressed through the courts, Kennedy lost every time. But when the Supreme Court declined to take the case at an earlier stage, Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh called the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning “troubling” and said “high school teachers and coaches public officials can be fired if they engage in any expression that the school does not like while on duty.”
Ninth Circuit Judge Milan Smith suggested that a teacher praying over lunch in a cafeteria does not send a public message the way Kennedy did. Smith called the narrative put forth by Kennedy’s attorneys, that it was about a public employee’s private prayer, “misleading.”
Kennedy said he just wants to get back into training.
“This has gotten so blown out of proportion,” he said. “Imagine a guy going out and tying his shoe, you’d never know the difference.”