A public high school football coach in Washington state gathered players at the 50-yard line to kneel, bow their heads and pray. The school district repeatedly asked her to move his prayer to a less conspicuous location, to avoid appearing as if the school endorsed a religious point of view.
He refused, arguing that the school violated his religious freedom, and a prominent right-wing legal group took up his case, which is now before the US Supreme Court.
In case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District it could have far-reaching consequences beyond the football field, potentially undermining fundamental First Amendment protections that prevent the government from imposing religious views.
The case of Joe Kennedy, represented by lawyers from the conservative First Liberty Institute, raises questions about the rights of government workers to free speech and their free exercise of religion in the face of long-standing precedent that prevents such speech from pressuring students and others to join.
Supreme Court precedent has roundly rejected public school-sponsored religious activity as unconstitutional coercion, since schools and school officials maintain enormous influence over students, whether “subtle and indirect” or otherwise, according to the court’s 1992 ruling in Lee v Weisman.
But a new conservative majority on the nation’s highest court has signaled its willingness to rule in favor of the coach after hearing opening arguments on April 25.
Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a religious liberty advocacy group on the legal team defending the school district, said in a statement that if the Supreme Court “gets it wrong in this case , we could witness the greatest loss of religious freedom in generations.”
“We are on very dangerous ground if the court is considering overturning decades of established laws that prevent government employees from pressuring students to pray in public schools,” he said. “The facts of the case, the laws of our country, and religious and non-religious Americans are on the side of protecting the religious freedom of students.”
The “establishment clause” of the First Amendment prohibits the government from imposing or discouraging religious belief.
Ouida Brown, general counsel for the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, said during a briefing in support of the school Monday that such protections ensure “that the government can’t tell us how to practice our faith or if you have to practice any faith at all.”
“We should be free to believe what we choose, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. We are not truly free unless we can make our own decisions about religion,” he said.
School prayer guidance issued in 2020 by the US Department of Education under then-President Donald Trump states that “The First Amendment prohibits school employees from encouraging or discouraging prayer and from actively engaging in such activity with the students”.
Mr. Kennedy joined the coaching staff of the Bremerton High School varsity football team in Washington State in 2008. He was eventually placed on administrative leave after refusing the school’s accommodations for his public prayer. When he terminated his contract, he did not reapply after the 2015 football season.
He sued in US District Court, though his challenge was rejected in lower court rulings that argued he cannot claim First Amendment protections because he acted as a public employee while working.
His argument also recasts prayer in public schools as protected speech to be exercised by teachers, who are portrayed as victims of religious discrimination if restricted from doing so, rather than as a form of government-sanctioned speech imposed on teachers. the students.
He told reporters outside the courtroom on Monday that he is optimistic the court will determine “exactly what the facts are and apply the law without any of the bias that exists.”
His arguments have led to a number of filings in support of the school district by clergy and religious organizations, members of Congress, civil rights groups, teachers’ unions, school districts and public employees, and 13 state attorneys general, among others. , to challenge your version. of the facts, which a trial judge described as a “false narrative” and “misleading.”
Lawyers and lower court rulings have argued that Mr. Kennedy and his lawyers, who have argued that he was only leading a “quiet, short sentence,” misrepresented his actions.
“One of my problems in this case is that the parties seem to have differing views on the facts,” Justice Stephen Breyer said.
The moments in the field became media spectacles; invited members of the press and the state legislature to attend, appeared on national television shows to defend his actions, and his supporters in the stands became so disruptive that a federal appeals court called the assault on the field at one game a “stampede”. which knocked down the members of the marching band.
A ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals argued that the coach “insisted that his speech come while players were standing next to him, fans were watching from the stands, and he was standing in center field.”
At least one student-athlete felt pressured to join in the prayers for fear that he wouldn’t be able to “play as much if he didn’t participate,” according to court documents.
Taking student-athletes to prayer during a school-sanctioned event under the leadership of their coach “somehow puts undue [pressure] students to participate when they don’t want to,” according to Judge Elena Kagan.
“They feel like they have to join religious observations that they don’t want to join,” he said during opening arguments on April 25.
At a briefing outside the Supreme Court, the Rev. Kathleen Kingslight of Bremerton’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church said: “If he kneels, they will kneel. If he prays at the 50-yard line, a powerful symbol… they will do the same.”
“Children follow the coach’s leadership because of his power, because of his influence. If they have a belief that is different… will those kids give up their own faith in order to support the coach?” she said.
The Rev. Gregory Reffner, pastor of Brownsville United Methodist Church in Bremerton, said, “The prospect of public high school students having to question whether or not they will receive consequences if they don’t participate in a post-game meeting and prayer speaks volumes to me. that the separation of church and state is being threatened.”
The American Civil Liberties Union argues that the school, in negotiating a more appropriate setting for their prayer, “did only what the First Amendment required of them: they protected the religious freedom of students by shielding them from school-sponsored religious exercise.”
The Supreme Court initially reviewed the case in 2019 as it made its way to the courts, though four conservative justices — Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — argued that an appeals court’s “understanding of the free speech rights of schoolteacher citizens is concerning and may warrant future review.”
In two hours of oral arguments Monday, conservative Supreme Court justices signaled they could side with Kennedy, with Justice Samuel Alito also appearing to suggest the district fired Kennedy for “illegal” reasons.
Judge Alito suggested that schools treat the religious expression of teachers in the same way as the expression of their political views.
“Suppose what Coach Kennedy did was walk out on the field after the game and wave the Ukrainian flag?” he asked him.
Judge Gorsuch said that one of the “difficulties” in the case is “understanding the logic of the district.”
Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh expressed concern about a player who felt pressured to join, believing “if I don’t get involved in this, I’m not going to start next week.”
“All the players are worried about playing time,” he said.
Paul Clement, a lawyer for Mr. Kennedy, argued that the case is not one in which the school took action because of concerns that students were “forced” to pray.
“The record is crystal clear that they were worried about the backup,” he said. “When the coach is alone in midfield giving a fleeting 15-second sentence…if you call that coercion, you’re making a major category mistake.”
Judge Kavanaugh also hypothesized that a coach made the sign of the cross during a game, suggesting that group prayer would be similarly protected.
Richard Katskee, an attorney representing the school district and legal director for Americans United, argued to the judges that personal expression, such as making the sign of a cross, is very different from acting as “the center of attention” in the midst of the countryside.
“I don’t know how we could write an opinion that would draw a line based on not making yourself the center of attention as a head coach of a game,” Justice Kavanaugh said.
The court is expected to rule on the case this summer.