Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Coach Kennedy Case

Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Coach Kennedy Case

The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments April 25 in the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. The case involves Joseph Kennedy, a former assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington, who was fired by the school for kneeling on the 50-yard line in silent prayer after football games.

“I had a covenant with God from the very beginning when I accepted the [coaching] job that I would give Him the credit and thank Him after every game, win or lose,” Kennedy told The Daily Signal.

For close to seven years, Kennedy walked onto the field after each game and knelt in prayer—without any inference from school officials. But after a coach from an opposing team made a comment in September 2015 to Bremerton’s principal that he “thought it was pretty cool how [the District] would allow’ Kennedy’s religious activity,” the school district decided that as a government employee, Kennedy could not pray in public while on duty.

The district sent Kennedy several letters. The first demanded that he cease all religious-related activities with students. Over the years, students had on occasion chosen—of their own volition—to join him on the 50-yard line to pray after games. Kennedy chose to comply with the district’s directive, as the commitment he made to God was personal and was never intended to involve students.

But in subsequent letters to Kennedy, the district went further, ordering Kennedy to stop all  “demonstrative religious activity” that is “readily observable to … students and the attending public.” When Kennedy continued to silently pray on the field after games, the district placed him on administrative leave. 

Kennedy filed suit against Bremerton School District.

First Liberty Institute lawyers representing Kennedy argue that district’s actions violated his rights under the free speech and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment.

“The school district fired Coach Kennedy for taking a knee and praying a silent, 15-30 second prayer,” they said. “They wouldn’t have fired him for taking that time to make a personal phone call or tie his shoes. Punishing him for one but not the other is explicit religious discrimination.“

In 2018, the Supreme Court chose not to hear Kennedy’s case and instead sent it back down to the district court for further litigation. But four justices—Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh—issued a statement expressing serious concern about how the school district and the lower courts had understood the First Amendment rights of public school teachers.

Four years later, the case made it back up to the Supreme Court, and in January, justices announced that they would hear it.

“I am extremely grateful that the Supreme Court is [hearing] my case,” Kennedy said, “and pray that I will soon be able to be back on the field coaching the game and players I love.”

A decision from the Supreme Court is expected by the end of June.

Photo: Courtesy of First Liberty Institute

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