Public school coach asks Supreme Court to approve postgame prayers

BREMERTON, Wash. — A coach’s personal act of prayer that became a public spectacle after Bremerton high school football games is now a major First Amendment test in a case before the United States Supreme Court on Monday.

Coach Joe Kennedy, who was suspended by the school in 2015 for post-game on-field prayers, asks judges to affirm the right of public school employees to pray aloud while on the job , even when they are in full view of the students. train or teach.

“It’s a right for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re that religion or that religion or you don’t have any faith,” Kennedy told ABC News. “Everyone has the same rights in America.”

The school district says Kennedy’s prayers, some of which were surrounded by players at the 50-yard line, are hardly private acts of faith and violate constitutional prohibitions against the promotion of religion by representatives of the government.

“It was my covenant between me and God that after every game, won or lost, I’m going to do it on the battlefield,” Kennedy said of his ritual, which he said usually lasted less than a month. one minute.

The lower courts sided with the school district. A Supreme Court ruling for Kennedy has the potential to expand the ability of public school employees nationwide to practice their religion more openly around students, legal experts say.

The case debated on Monday will be decided by the end of June.

The First Amendment protects free speech and the free exercise of religion, but it also prohibits government establishment of religion. The Supreme Court has long held that public school-sponsored prayer violates the Establishment Clause, even if the prayer is voluntary.

It canceled Bible readings and teacher-led prayer in classrooms, religious invocations at graduations, and religious demonstrations at other school-sponsored activities. In a case of 2000, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doethe court ruled that opening football games with student-led prayer was also unconstitutional.

At the same time, the court ruled that free speech rights do not stop at the school gate and that religion does not need to be removed entirely from public schools.

While Kennedy regularly prayed on the field after games for more than seven years, attracting varying levels of student participation, it wasn’t until 2015 that the school district informed him that the separation of church and the condition meant he could no longer pray with the players and keep his job.

“They just said if anyone could see you anywhere here, it was over,” Kennedy said.

The school district explained at the time that the prayers violated “constitutional guidelines requiring that he refrain from engaging in open and public religious displays on the football field while on duty.”

Some Bremerton High School parents like Paul Peterson, whose son Aaron played for Coach Kennedy in 2010, later complained that the prayer sessions applied inappropriate pressure.

“The coach is a leader. The coach is a mentor. If he goes to the 50-yard line, he has a message he wants to convey, and so the players will follow,” Peterson said in a statement. interview.

“The evil is for those who are the minority students, the minority faiths, the students who have no faith,” he said. “They’re being pressured to do something they don’t fundamentally agree with. That’s what the First Amendment protects us from.”

Kennedy insists there was no coercion, although widely publicized scenes show his post-game prayers became much more than solitary leaps of faith.

Attorney Jeremy Dys, representing Kennedy on behalf of the First Liberty Institute, said the coach should not be held responsible for the voluntary decisions of others to join him in an expression of faith.

“He’s not on the court to coach anyone, he doesn’t say what game to play. No instructions are given,” Dys said. “School districts do not own every word of your mouth or any religious expression you choose to make in your private time, even on school grounds.”

A federal appeals court called Kennedy’s characterization of her prayers brief, silent and solitary a ‘misleading narrative’, noting that they were clearly audible prayers surrounded by groups of students, amounting to religious speech illegal as a “school official”.

“If this was a case about a coach who actually wanted to pray privately, in a solitary way, we wouldn’t be here,” said Rachel Laser, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. , a non-profit advocacy group. support the school district. “You don’t leave that behind when you go to teach or coach in a public school, but what you leave behind is your ability to engage very impressionable students, who have to go to a public school.

Kennedy’s case has been cheered by top Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, dozens of state and federal lawmakers, and star NFL quarterbacks, like Kirk Cousins ​​and Nick Foles, who told judges in an amicus curiae filing that the power of prayer promotes sportsmanship.

“These kids mean everything to me, because I was a troubled youngster, and I wanted to reach out to help these kids in Bremerton, to give back to my community that I terrorized as a kid,” said Kennedy, who is a veteran of the Marine Corps. and former Project Manager at Bremerton Dockyard.

On the other side of the debate, leaders of minority faiths, atheists and parents like Peterson, say a coach’s good intentions should not be an excuse to flout the Constitution. The school district has received widespread support in court cases from professional athletes, members of Congress, civil rights groups, teachers’ unions, and local government groups, including the United States Conference of Mayors. United.

“When the teacher or the coach stands up and directs the kids, I think you cross the line of indoctrination,” Peterson said.

The case could impact public school playgrounds nationwide and determine whether Kennedy can coach again and take a knee in prayer for his Bremerton Knights.

He currently lives in Florida but told the court he would return to Bremerton if the judges rule in his favor.

“Nobody should have to be fired or worry about their job if they show the slightest sign of faith,” Kennedy said. “At the end of the game, I hope to get the win, but we will see how the courts decide.”

ABC News

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