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Supreme Court won't hear appeal of high school football coach fired for leading voluntary prayers

Bremerton School District in Washington state terminated coach Joe Kennedy in 2015

Image source: EWTN-TV YouTube video screenshot

The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a petition for appeal from high school football coach Joe Kennedy, who was fired in 2015 for refusing to stop leading student-athletes in voluntary prayer on the field after games.

Kennedy filed a lawsuit against his former employer, the Bremerton School District in Washington state, saying his First Amendment rights were violated when he was punished for continuing to publicly pray on the job. Lower courts have ruled in favor of the school district.

What are the details?

NBC News reported that Kennedy began coaching in 2008, and shortly thereafter began dropping to one knee on the football field after games to — according to his Supreme Court appeal — "offer a silent or quiet prayer of thanksgiving for player safety, sportsmanship and spirited competition."

Student-athletes who wished to participate would join him in prayer, and while no one complained, schools officials warned Kennedy to end the practice when they got wind of it. The district placed the coach on paid leave in the fall 2015, for continuing his public display of faith by leading fellow coaches, players, and spectators in prayer following games. Kennedy was not rehired the next year.

Kennedy sued the school district for violating his rights of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but lost. The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in 2017 that Bremerton School District did not have to reinstate the coach, because his actions could "promote disunity along religious lines and risks alienating valued community members from an environment that must be open and welcoming to all," according to the Washington Examiner.

Why wouldn't the Supreme Court hear the case?

Fox News reported that Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas are interested in the case, but agreed that the appeal must be rejected for now because more facts would be needed in order for the Supreme Court to take it up.

Yet, the Supreme Court's refusal to hear the case was not an endorsement of the lower court's decision.

Justice Alito wrote, "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. I hope that this is not the message that the Ninth Circuit meant to convey, but its opinion can certainly be read that way."

Alito said more information would need to be presented regarding the school district's handling of the situation, such as whether Kennedy was let go for making it seem like the district endorsed his Christian beliefs, or if the coach was seen as neglecting his job duties.

One last thing…
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