Washington soccer coach prayer case goes to Supreme Court


FILE – Bremerton High assistant soccer coach Joe Kennedy, entrance, walks off the sector along with his lawyer, proper, Oct. 16, 2015, after praying on the 50-yard line following a soccer recreation in Bremerton, Wash. After dropping his teaching job for refusing to cease kneeling in prayer with gamers and spectators on the sector instantly after soccer video games, Kennedy will take his arguments earlier than the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, April 25, 2022, saying the Bremerton School District violated his First Amendment rights by refusing to let him proceed praying at midfield after video games. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times through AP, File)


The clock ran down on the finish of the homecoming recreation and spectators stormed the soccer area, knocking over members of the highschool band — all to assemble round an assistant coach as he took a knee in prayer, surrounded by uniformed gamers.

Six years later, after dropping his teaching job and repeatedly dropping in courtroom, that former Washington state coach, Joe Kennedy, will take his arguments earlier than the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, saying the Bremerton School District violated his First Amendment rights by refusing to let him proceed praying at midfield instantly after video games. Four conservative justices have already expressed issues with how his case has been dealt with.

Kennedy’s effort to get his job again helped earn him an look at a 2016 Donald Trump rally and rapidly turned a cultural touchstone, pitting public faculty workers’ spiritual liberties towards what his critics describe as longstanding ideas separating church and state and defending college students from spiritual coercion.

Lawyers for the college district say officers had no drawback letting Kennedy pray individually from college students or letting him return to the sector to hope after the scholars left. But permitting him to hope at midfield instantly after video games with college students there risked being seen as authorities endorsement of faith.

While Kennedy insists he by no means cared whether or not college students participated within the prayers and he by no means requested them to hitch him, at the least one participant — anonymously — later reported taking part opposite to his personal beliefs, for concern of dropping enjoying time.

“This case is challenging well-established case law that has protected students’ religious freedom for decades, and that has been supported by conservative and liberal justices alike,” mentioned Rachel Laser, chief government of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is representing the college district. “If the court rules the wrong way, teachers and coaches could pressure students to pray in every public school classroom across the country.”

For Kennedy’s supporters, the ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ holding within the case would pressure public faculty workers to drop their spiritual identities on the schoolhouse door — one thing they are saying the Constitution doesn’t require.

“If a teacher prays over her lunch in the cafeteria and students can see her — just that little blessing over her salad — that’s enough to terminate that teacher, according to the school district,” mentioned Jeremy Dys, an lawyer with First Liberty Institute, which is representing Kennedy.

Kennedy, a former Marine whose day job was on the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, started teaching soccer at Bremerton High in 2008. He was new to faith and training, and mentioned he was impressed by the film “Facing the Giants” — a few Christian highschool soccer coach — to provide because of God “on the battlefield” after every recreation.

What started as a solitary follow quickly attracted college students. He agreed, citing the district’s coverage of neither encouraging nor discouraging scholar prayer. Over the years he started main locker room prayers earlier than video games, in addition to group prayers and non secular motivational talks at midfield after them.

The faculty district mentioned it didn’t study Kennedy was main gamers in prayer till it heard it from one other crew’s coach in September 2015. Administrators advised him he was to not take part in spiritual actions with college students, and any of his personal spiritual commentary have to be both non-demonstrative or ought to happen with out college students.

For a month, Kennedy complied, the district notes in arguments to the courtroom: He prayed on his personal, corresponding to whereas college students have been singing the struggle track, and the district let him be.

But Kennedy’s legal professionals then insisted he be allowed to renew his prior follow, describing it as a “personal” prayer protected by the Constitution whether or not or not college students joined him. Kennedy introduced he would resume praying at midfield after video games, and when he did so on the Oct. 16, 2015, homecoming recreation, as Bremerton’s gamers have been in any other case occupied, spectators rushed to area to hitch him — as did members of the opposing crew.

The district nonetheless didn’t hearth Kennedy, however wrote to warning him. Given his prior statements and actions, his praying at midfield — on authorities property he may entry solely by advantage of his job — could possibly be perceived as faculty endorsement of faith, exposing the district to potential legal responsibility, Superintendent Aaron Leavell wrote.

“I wish to again emphasize that the district does not prohibit prayer or other religious exercise by its employees,” Leavell wrote. “However, it must prohibit any conduct by its employees that would serve as District endorsement of religion.”

Kennedy prayed once more on the sector after the subsequent two video games: first at a varsity recreation the place nobody joined him, after which at a junior varsity recreation the place he was joined by a state lawmaker. The district then positioned him on go away, and his contract was not renewed.

Kennedy’s legal professionals level out that he stopped partaking in spiritual exercise with Bremerton college students when requested. What he was really suspended for was not delivering prayers to college students, however kneeling and praying rapidly by himself, they argue.

The federal choose who dominated towards Kennedy, District Judge Ronald Leighton, in contrast his postgame habits to a director who involves middle stage and prays on the finish of a college play: “A reasonable onlooker would interpret their speech from that location as an extension of the school-sanctioned speech just before it.”

As the case made its means by way of the courts, Kennedy misplaced at each flip. But when the Supreme Court declined to take the case at an earlier stage, Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh known as the ninth Circuit’s reasoning “troubling” and mentioned beneath it, “public school teachers and coaches may be fired if they engage in any expression that the school does not like while they are on duty.”

Ninth Circuit Judge Milan Smith steered a instructor who prays over lunch in a cafeteria doesn’t ship a public message the way in which Kennedy did. Smith known as the narrative posed by Kennedy’s legal professionals — that this was a few public worker’s personal prayer — “deceitful.”

Kennedy mentioned he simply desires to get again to teaching.

“This thing has just been so blown out of proportion,” he mentioned. “Imagine a guy going out there and tying his shoe — you would never know the difference.”

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