Law & Courts

Supreme Court to Hear Case of Coach Who Prayed After Games in Defiance of School District

By Mark Walsh — January 14, 2022 4 min read
Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy is in a conflict with the Bremerton, 
Wash., school district over his silent prayer after games.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Adding another major case about religion and public education to its docket, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear the appeal of a former public high school football coach in Washington state who was removed from his job for praying on the field in defiance of his supervisors.

The case of Joseph A. Kennedy has become a cause célèbre in conservative legal circles, and the high court’s grant of his appeal does not come as a surprise. In 2019, when the coach’s case reached the court at a preliminary stage, four conservative justices expressed sympathy for his arguments and suggested a federal appeals court had a “troubling” understanding of the free speech rights of public school educators.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said in the 2019 statement that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, had suggested in an opinion “that a coach’s duty to serve as a good role model requires the coach to refrain from any manifestation of religious faith—even when the coach is plainly not on duty.”

“The suggestion that even while off duty, a teacher or coach cannot engage in any outward manifestation of religious faith is remarkable,” Alito wrote, in a statement respecting the court’s decision not to take up Kennedy’s case at that time because of some undeveloped factual matters. Alito’s statement was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil M. Gorsuch, and Brett M. Kavanaugh.

A continuing controversy over post-game prayers.

Some of the facts in the coach’s case have been a matter of contention. Kennedy was the assistant varsity football coach and the head coach of the junior varsity team at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Wash., in the fall of 2015 when his post-game prayers caused controversy.

Bremerton district officials advised Kennedy that he could give inspirational talks to team members before and after games, but he could not lead or encourage student prayers, which the district believed could be coercive to students. The coach complied for several weeks, but sought an accommodation from the district to continue his post-game prayers. The school district rejected his view that his job responsibilities ended when the football game did.

When the coach continued to pray on the field at the end of two more games, the district placed him on administrative leave, and he did not seek to renew his contract.

The coach sued the school district in seeking reinstatement as a coach and a ruling that he had the right to pray on the field after games.

After the Supreme Court had denied review of Kennedy’s appeal of a preliminary injunction against him in 2019, a federal district court held that the “risk of constitutional liability associated with Kennedy’s religious conduct” was the “sole reason” the district suspended the coach.

A 9th Circuit panel, in March 2021, again ruled in favor of the school district, and the full 9th Circuit last July declined to rehear the case amid a flurry of strong written opinions. One dissenting judge, Ryan D. Nelson, said “merely allowing religion to be independently expressed in a school setting was never and is not an establishment of religion.”

But another 9th Circuit judge, Milan D. Smith Jr., noted that the coach had courted publicity and support for his defiant midfield prayers.

“I personally find it more than a little ironic that Kennedy’s ‘everybody watch me pray’ staged public prayers (that spawned this multiyear litigation) so clearly flout the instructions found in the Sermon on the Mount on the appropriate way to pray,” wrote Smith, who quoted from the Gospel according to St. Matthew.

Coach gets support from states, religious groups, and some ex-NFL players

Kennedy’s appeal to the Supreme Court begins by stating simply that he “lost his job as a football coach at a public high school because he knelt and said a quiet prayer by himself at midfield after the game ended.”

The appeal, from First Liberty Institute and former U.S. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement, emphasizes that “four justices have already recognized that the free-speech claim in this case, standing alone, is ‘troubling.’”

“This court should ... confirm that a public school does not own every on-the-job expression that its teachers or coaches may make around students,” the appeal states, “and that the First Amendment does not demand that schools purge from the public sphere all that in any way partakes of the religious.”

Kennedy had the support of friend-of-the-court briefs at the petition stage from 24 states, several religious groups, and two former pro football players, Steve Largent (also a former congressman) and Chad Hennings.

The Bremerton district, represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, urged the justices not to take up the case, arguing that Kennedy’s appeal distorted or ignored facts in the record and raised only a hypothetical question about whether public educators ever have the right to pray silently at school.

“The district … faced a stark choice: Either let its employee dictate how school events would be run—even if that threatened the safety and religious freedom of the students—or take the steps necessary to curb the practice,” the Bremerton district’s brief says. “This case is about a school district’s authority to protect students when its employee does not work with it to find a reasonable accommodation.”

The brief even includes pictures of Kennedy’s on-field prayers and the large gatherings the coach attracted.

The court’s grant of review in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (Case No. 21-418) comes at the point when it is adding the last cases that could be argued in the current term. But even though the court has room in the calendar of its April session to hear the case, it is not yet certain that will happen.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial
Jobs January 2022 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Students Lose Appeal on Right to Civics Education, But Win Praise From Judges Anyway
A federal appellate court panel commended Rhode Island students for the novel effort, but said Supreme Court precedent stood in the way.
3 min read
Scales of justice and Gavel on wooden table and Lawyer or Judge working with agreement in Courtroom, Justice and Law concept.
Pattanaphong Khuankaew/iStock
Law & Courts High Court Appears Skeptical of Vaccine Mandate Covering Schools in Over Half the States
The Biden administration's OSHA rule applies to private employers with 100 or more workers, as well as school districts in 26 states.
4 min read
The Supreme Court shown Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, in Washington. The Supreme Court is taking up two major Biden administration efforts to bump up the nation's vaccination rate against COVID-19 at a time of spiking coronavirus cases because of the omicron variant.
The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing two Biden administration efforts to bump up the nation's vaccination rate against COVID-19.
Evan Vucci/AP
Law & Courts Federal Judge Blocks Biden's COVID Vaccine Mandate for Head Start Teachers
In a challenge by 24 states, the judge's preliminary injunction also blocks a mask mandate for Head Start students age 2 or older.
4 min read
COVID face masks and gavel
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Law & Courts Yanking Books From School Libraries: What the Supreme Court Has Said, and Why It's Murky
A 1982 dispute involving a local school board offers plenty of parallels to the latest wave of book challenges involving race and gender.
11 min read
Books packed up in a cardboard box.
Patrick Daxenbichler/iStock/Getty