The case before the judges on Monday involves Joseph Kennedy, a former football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington. For years, the coach knelt in the center of the field after games and led students in prayer. The school district eventually learned what he was doing and asked him to stop.
Kennedy’s lawyers say the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and freedom of religion allow him to pray in the field, with students free to join. But the school district says Kennedy’s religious speech interfered with students’ religious freedom rights, could have the effect of pressuring students to pray, and opened the district itself to legal action. The school district says it tried to find a way for Kennedy, who is a Christian, to pray privately before or after the game, including on the field after the students left, but Kennedy’s lawsuit followed.
The case comes to court at a time when conservative justices make up the majority of the court and have been sensitive to the concerns of individuals and religious groups, such as groups that have challenged coronavirus restrictions that applied to places of worship.
But cases involving religion can also unite the court. Last year, for example, the court unanimously sided with a Catholic foster care agency that said its religious views prevented it from working with same-sex couples. Already this term in an 8-1 decision, judges ruled for a Texas death row inmate who sought to have his pastor pray aloud and touch him during his execution.
The Bremerton case, meanwhile, has already caught the attention of the judges. In 2019, judges declined to get involved in the case at an earlier stage. But four justices criticized the lower court rulings for the school district, writing that an appeals court’s “understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling.”
Kennedy started working at Bremerton High School in 2008, and it was his practice at the end of games – after players and coaches from both teams met in midfield to shake hands – to take a break and kneel down to pray. Kennedy said he wanted to thank his players for what they’ve accomplished and for keeping them safe, among other things.
Kennedy initially prayed alone on the 50-yard line at the end of games, but students began to join him, and over time he began to deliver a short, inspirational speech with religious references. Kennedy says he never asked players to join or asked a student to pray. He also led the team in prayer in the locker room before games, a practice that preceded him.
The school district didn’t learn of the practice from Kennedy until 2015. It then told him he needed to stop praying with students or engaging in overtly religious activities while remaining “in service” as a as a coach. After Kennedy continued to pray in the field, he was placed on paid leave. His contract expired and he did not reapply to coach the following year, according to the school.
A decision is expected before the court begins its summer recess.
The case is Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, 21-418.
Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.