Coach who lost his job for praying on the field brings case to Supreme Court

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Washington — It was aft watching the sports movie "Facing the Giants" that Joseph Kennedy, past a caller manager for the Bremerton High School shot squad successful Washington state, was inspired to pray.

And so, aft coaching his archetypal crippled for the Bremerton Knights successful August 2008, Kennedy walked to the 50-yard-line, "on the battlefield," the retired U.S. Marine says, and took a genu to connection a supplication of gratitude. 

It began with the coach, alone, concisely thanking God aft the last whistle for keeping the players safe, for just play and for spirited competition. But soon enough, the fig of players gathering alongside Kennedy aft games grew to see a bulk of the team, though information varied. At slightest 1 parent said his son felt "compelled to participate" retired of fearfulness helium would suffer retired connected playing time.

And soon enough, the prayers by Kennedy, himself a postgraduate of Bremerton High School, evolved into motivational speeches with spiritual references.

Praying Football Coach Joe Kennedy, a erstwhile adjunct shot manager astatine Bremerton High School successful Bremerton, Washington, poses for a photograph March 9, 2022, astatine the school's shot field.  Ted S. Warren / AP

For 7 years, Kennedy continued his signifier of praying connected the tract with nary issues. But successful September 2015, the Bremerton School District learned what helium was doing erstwhile an opposing team's manager told Bremerton High School's main that Kennedy asked his players to articulation him for the post-game prayer, saying helium "thought it was beauteous cool" the territory would let specified activity, according to court records.

That reflection by the opposing manager served arsenic the catalyst for a yearslong conflict betwixt Kennedy and the schoolhouse district, the venue for which shifted from the gridiron to the courts erstwhile the manager mislaid his occupation aft defying directives to extremity his signifier of praying connected the field.

Kennedy argued helium was engaging successful constitutionally protected spiritual expression, and connected Monday, the United States Supreme Court volition measurement his bid to get his coaching occupation backmost and beryllium allowed to commune astatine midfield aft games.

"It seems truthful elemental to me: It's a feline taking a genu by himself connected the 50-yard-line, which to maine doesn't look similar it needs a rocket idiosyncratic oregon a Supreme Court justness to fig out," helium told CBS News. "I didn't privation to origin immoderate waves, and the happening I wanted to bash was manager shot and convey God aft the game."

But for defenders of the schoolhouse district, Kennedy was acting arsenic an cause of the authorities who, arsenic a nationalist schoolhouse employee, violated the spiritual state of students who felt unit to pray-to-play.

"When a manager uses the powerfulness of his occupation to beryllium successful a spot and person entree to students astatine a clip erstwhile they're expected to encircle him and travel to him, that's an maltreatment of that powerfulness and a usurpation of the Constitution," Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told CBS News' Jan Crawford. "Religious state is not the close to enforce your religion connected others. We each request to person it, truthful that's wherefore the escaped workout and constitution clause enactment unneurotic to support spiritual state for each of us."

"Giving up is not thing that's successful my blood"

After the Bremerton School District learned of Kennedy's post-game signifier of praying astatine midfield successful September 2015, it launched an probe into whether helium was complying with the schoolhouse board's argumentation connected religious-related activities and practices. 

While acknowledging that Kennedy had "not actively encouraged, oregon required, participation" successful either a pre-game supplication successful the locker country oregon his "inspirational speech astatine midfield" aft games," the territory said successful a letter dated September 17, 2015, that the activities apt would interruption the First Amendment's Establishment Clause and exposure the territory to "significant hazard of liability."

"Bremerton High School legally risks endorsing oregon favoring 1 acceptable of spiritual views implicit others and that's not what the Constitution promises," Laser said. "Religious freedom, those 16 words of our First Amendment of our Constitution are a shield that protects spiritual state for each of us, not conscionable spiritual state for immoderate of us."

The territory told Kennedy that his talks with students indispensable stay wholly secular, and aboriginal spiritual enactment helium engages in, including prayer, indispensable not interfere with his occupation duties, indispensable beryllium abstracted from immoderate pupil enactment and whitethorn not person information from the students. 

In compliance with the district's request, Kennedy temporarily stopped praying connected the tract aft games. But 1 period later, successful mid-October 2015, he informed the district through an lawyer that helium would resume saying a post-game supplication astatine the 50-yard-line aft requesting a spiritual accommodation nether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits favoritism connected the ground of religion.

"No tenable perceiver could reason that a shot manager who waits until the crippled is implicit and the players person near the tract and past walks to mid-field to accidental a short, private, idiosyncratic supplication is speaking connected behalf of the state," his lawyer said successful a missive to the Bremerton School District. "Quite the opposite, Coach Kennedy is engaged successful backstage spiritual look upon which the authorities whitethorn not infringe."

And so, aft the last whistle astatine Bremerton's homecoming crippled connected October 16, 2015, Kennedy shook hands with the opposing team, waited until players were singing their combat song, and past knelt astatine the 50-yard-line, bowed his head, and, joined by players from some teams, members of the media and the public, prayed.

He did truthful again for the adjacent 2 games, aft which the district placed Kennedy connected paid administrative leave from his presumption arsenic an adjunct manager for violating its directives. During a consequent valuation of Kennedy's performance, Bremerton's diversion director recommended helium not beryllium rehired for the adjacent season, citing a nonaccomplishment to travel territory argumentation and nonaccomplishment to supervise student-athletes aft games. 

Kennedy chose not to reapply for his coaching presumption astatine Bremerton High School, and, successful August 2016, filed suit against the Bremerton School District successful national territory tribunal successful Tacoma, Washington, arguing it violated his law rights to escaped code and escaped exercise.

1-coach-kennedy-bremerton-high-footbal-field-kneeling-sunset.jpg Former Bermerton High School shot manager Joseph Kennedy (First Liberty Institute)

U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton ruled against Kennedy, uncovering that "while nationalist schools bash not person unfettered discretion to restrict an employee's spiritual speech, they bash person the quality to forestall a manager from praying astatine the halfway of the shot tract instantly aft games." 

Kennedy appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the territory court's ruling. He past turned to the Supreme Court, and successful 2019, the precocious tribunal declined to perceive his case.

In a connection from Justice Samuel Alito and joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, the 4 justices said it was premature for the Supreme Court to perceive Kennedy's lawsuit astatine that time, but warned the 9th Circuit's "understanding of the escaped code rights of nationalist schoolhouse teachers is troubling and whitethorn warrant reappraisal successful the future."

"What is possibly astir troubling astir the 9th Circuit's sentiment is connection that tin beryllium understood to mean that a coach's work to service arsenic a bully relation exemplary requires the manager to refrain from immoderate manifestation of spiritual religion — adjacent erstwhile the manager is plainly not connected duty," Alito wrote.

After further proceedings, Kennedy again suffered losses successful the little courts. A three-judge sheet of judges connected the 9th Circuit ruled successful March 2021 that the schoolhouse district's efforts to forestall Kennedy from praying did not interruption his law rights, and his postgame code connected the tract was code arsenic a authorities employee.

"At contented successful this lawsuit is not, arsenic Kennedy attempts to gloss it, a idiosyncratic and backstage workout of faith," Judge Milan Smith Jr. wrote for the unanimous panel. "At contented was — successful each consciousness of the connection — a demonstration, and, due to the fact that Kennedy demanded that it instrumentality spot instantly aft the last whistle, it was a objection needfully directed astatine students and the attending public."

The afloat 9th Circuit declined to re-hear the case, and Kennedy again appealed the determination to the Supreme Court successful September. The precocious tribunal agreed successful January to instrumentality up the dispute.

"I was a Marine for 20 years. Supporting and defending the Constitution means a batch to me. Giving up is not thing that's successful my blood, it's not successful my nature," Kennedy said of his lengthy ineligible combat to get his occupation back. " I tin look astatine myself successful the mirror, look astatine my squad implicit the years, and clasp my caput up precocious and look them successful the eyes and accidental hey, I fought the bully fight, I didn't springiness up."

Kennedy's tribunal conflict with the schoolhouse territory volition travel earlier a Supreme Court that has shifted further rightward since 2019, erstwhile the justices archetypal spurned his petition to perceive his case. Now with a 6-3 blimpish majority, the precocious tribunal has successful caller presumption been much sympathetic to spiritual rights.

"The authorities does not ain each ounce of your escaped expression. They can't censor you from everything you do," Jeremy Dys, peculiar counsel for First Liberty, which is representing Kennedy, told CBS News. "The Establishment Clause does not mean you indispensable censor and stamp retired immoderate spiritual demonstration."

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In filings with the Supreme Court, lawyers for the territory reason it acted wrong its authorization to modulate Kennedy's "very nationalist speech" and assertion helium "tells a breathless communicative of authoritarian authorities forbidding backstage spiritual expression, insisting that unless the tribunal applies his preferred ineligible test, spiritual signifier volition beryllium quashed crossed the country."

Under the Supreme Court's jurisprudence, the schoolhouse district's involvement successful shielding students from spiritual coercion and preventing employees from "commandeering authorities events" outweighs Kennedy's involvement successful praying with students, the territory argued.

Laser noted that Kennedy was not precluded from praying connected his own, adjacent if helium was considered "on duty." But it was the spot and clip astatine which helium chose to prosecute successful the signifier that near students feeling pressured to join.

"If this manager were successful information doing what helium says helium was doing, which is praying successful a backstage and solitary manner, we wouldn't beryllium here, due to the fact that that's fine. You don't person to permission that down erstwhile you go a nationalist official," she said. "But spiritual state is not the close to usage the powerfulness of the authorities to favour 1 acceptable of spiritual beliefs implicit others, to enforce 1 acceptable of spiritual beliefs connected nationalist schoolhouse students."

The quality betwixt Kennedy and the Bremerton School District has attracted a slew of friend-of-the-court briefs, including from existent and erstwhile National Football League players, and erstwhile collegiate athletes and coaches.

In one brief filed successful enactment of Kennedy connected behalf of Minnesota Vikings backmost Kirk Cousins, Chicago Bears backmost Nick Foles and erstwhile NFL backmost Drew Stanton, among others, the existent and erstwhile players invoked Colin Kaepernick — though astatine archetypal not by sanction — kneeling during the nationalist anthem to protestation radical injustice.

"That practice, similar Kennedy's prayers, is arguable — courageous to immoderate and violative to others," they argued. "But if Joe Kennedy had taken a genu to protestation radical injustice, the territory astir surely would not person argued that his code was someway the state's. Rather, determination would person been nary question that it was protected backstage speech."

As the players "can attest from their acquisition astatine each levels of sports— precocious school, college, and pro —  audiences recognize symbolic acts of code connected the tract to bespeak the views of the idiosyncratic athletes and coaches who prosecute successful them, whether they are Colin Kaepernick, Tim Tebow, Shaquille O'Neal, oregon Joe Kennedy. The investigation does not alteration due to the fact that the code is spiritual alternatively than political," they told the Supreme Court.

Dys, too, said that the First Amendment protects the rights of some Kaepernick and Kennedy to instrumentality a knee, whether successful an look of escaped code oregon escaped exercise.

"One is code and 1 is escaped exercise, but they're wrong a fewer words of each other," helium said. "They are some protected by the First Amendment, and they're allowed to person that right."

But a radical of erstwhile nonrecreational shot players and collegiate athletes successful enactment of the schoolhouse district warned the narration betwixt a manager and jock successful precocious schoolhouse athletics is unique, arsenic it is "highly susceptible to being coercive," and should beryllium considered by the Supreme Court arsenic it weighs the case.

"The grounds present demonstrates that Mr. Kennedy's actions had the propensity to, and did, pb players to consciousness compelled to enactment successful Mr. Kennedy's expressions of religion adjacent if they would alternatively not person done so," the erstwhile athletes, including erstwhile Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and erstwhile NFL moving backmost Obafemi Ayanbadejo.

A determination from the Supreme Court is expected by the extremity of June.

In: Supreme Court of the United States