The Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments in a case involving Joe Kennedy, a former Washington state high school football coach who was fired for praying after games, his lawyers announced last week.
What are the details?
“No teacher or coach should lose their job for simply expressing their faith while in public,” said Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO of First Liberty, the law firm representing Kennedy, in a press release. “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."
First Liberty added that by agreeing to take the case, the Supreme Court has "an opportunity to protect the right of every American to live out their faith, including praying in public, without the fear of punishment."
Kennedy, too, expressed optimism about his chances before the nation's top court, saying, “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.”
What's the background?
Bremerton School District's decision in 2015 to fire Joe Kennedy — a Christian and 20-year Marine veteran who served as a high school assistant football coach in the district — drew national headlines and enraged religious liberty advocates.
Kennedy, who started coaching in 2008, exercised his faith by silently offering a brief prayer to God at midfield immediately after football games. According to his lawyers, Kennedy would simply drop to one knee and "offer a silent or quiet prayer of thanksgiving for player safety, sportsmanship, and spirited competition."
The tradition went on for years without any complaints and, in fact, was embraced by members of the community and players, who often joined him. Then suddenly, in 2015, the school district ordered Kennedy to stop, arguing his practice violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. When he refused, the district terminated him.
Kennedy promptly filed lawsuits, claiming that his rights of free expression and religious liberty had been violated, but lower courts consistently ruled against him.
In 2017, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Kennedy "took advantage of his position" as a public employee. Then last year, the 9th Circuit Court again rejected his arguments, this time going so far as to conclude that since his attempts to challenge the district drew "national attention" they thus "showed that he was not engaging in private prayer" but "in public speech of an overtly religious nature while performing his job duties."
In 2019, the Supreme Court declined to take up Kennedy's appeal, though four conservative justices on the court remarked that lower court rulings against the coach were troubling. Now, with a bolstered conservative majority on the court, Kennedy has been afforded an opportunity to plead his case.
The court is expected to hear oral arguments in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District sometime in the spring.
This time around, First Liberty argued that Kennedy's case involves more than just a high school football coach's ability to express his religious views. Rather, it has far more wide-ranging implications for "practically everything public school teachers [do] or say during school hours or after-school hours."
If the district's termination of Kennedy is allowed to stand, it could effectively turn every form of speech into "government speech that the school may prohibit," lawyers claimed.
In an op-ed published by Fox News last year, Kennedy defended his ongoing legal fight, saying, "There are days when I want to give up and move on with my life. There are days when I don't think I can keep fighting this fight. But that's when I remember the hundreds of times I told my players not quit no matter the challenge!"
"I also think of the thousands of other public school coaches and teachers whose inalienable right to freely exercise their faith in public is at risk if the court decisions against me are allowed to stand," he added.
Coach Joe Kennedy Behind the Scenes Special | First Liberty Live! youtu.be