WASHINGTON D.C.: The U.S. Supreme Court said it would hear an appeal from a former high school football coach who said his First Amendment rights were violated when he was fired in 2015 after kneeling at the 50-yard-line in prayer.
The lawsuit by Joseph Kennedy, a coach at Bremerton High School just outside Seattle, is being supported by religious groups who assert that Kennedy was denied his free speech rights as a private citizen.
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In 2019, Kennedy went to the Supreme Court to ask that he be reinstated in his job while the case was being tried. The court denied his appeal, but four of its conservative justices wrote at the time that a lower court’s ruling in favor of the school was “troubling,” and Kennedy’s claims “may justify review in the future.”
In March, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco ruled that allowing Kennedy to pray, which he did in view of spectators and occasionally with players, would violate the Constitutional prohibition on government establishing religion, adding that he acted as a public employee and not a private citizen.
In December, Bremerton School District told the court that school officials had heard from the parents of players who said their children felt compelled to participate in the prayers.
“The prayer practice he wanted to continue had not been private at all. He held more postgame prayers on the 50-yard line, with students and community members rushing the field to join him, knocking over members of the marching band,” the school wrote.
Kennedy’s attorneys claimed the appeals court misread the Supreme Court’s signals, stating, “The Ninth Circuit not only doubled down on its troubling government-speech holding, but reached the stunning conclusion that the school district had a constitutional duty to prohibit Kennedy’s prayer, even if he offered it as a private citizen.”
Recently, the Supreme Court has generally looked favorably on religious freedom claims, after a series of disputes over the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which prohibits the government from becoming entangled with religion, and the amendment’s free exercise clause, which guarantees the right to practice religion free of government interference.