High School Football Coach's Prayer Case Goes Before the Supreme Court

(Larry Steagall/Kitsap Sun via AP, file)

If you’ve been around PJ Media for a while, you might remember back in October 2015 when I introduced you to Coach Joe Kennedy of Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Wash. The veteran coach had prayed with his players (and often with opposing team players and coaches) for seven years before the school district decided it was a problem.

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The district forbade Kennedy from praying, but he continued. The school district insisted that he stop or face disciplinary action, including losing his job.

“The school board has not received any complaints about Kennedy’s prayers,” I wrote in a follow-up article at the time. “In fact, many Bremerton players stand and pray alongside him after the game, and coaches and players from other teams have joined in as well. In fact, the homecoming prayer huddle included a downright impressive representation for both teams.”

The district refused to renew Kennedy’s contract at the end of that season, and he sued with the help of the Liberty Institute.

On Monday, six-and-a-half years after the district made its decision to target Kennedy, his case went before the Supreme Court. ESPN reports that the oral arguments in the case went nearly twice as long as the hour the Court allotted for it. During the arguments, “the justices seemed divided along ideological lines.”

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The comments from various justices were telling. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the supposedly “wise Latina,” intimated that Kennedy was merely praying as a public spectacle rather than out of the overflow of his heart.

“I don’t know of any other religion that requires you to get at the 50-yard line, the place where postgame victory speeches are given,” she questioned. “What religion requires you to do it at that spot?”

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I doubt she’d ask that kind of question if a Muslim coach were bowing to Mecca at the 50-yard line.

By contrast, Justice Clarence Thomas wondered if the reaction would be different if the kneeling wasn’t prayer but was instead done in “moral opposition to racism.”

The school district’s attorney insisted that Kennedy wasn’t just simply praying; rather, the district made claims that the coach was pressuring his player to participate in the postgame prayers. The district paints Kennedy as a troublemaker who stirred up controversy with his prayers.

Attorney Richard Katskee asserted that “the issue was that Kennedy ‘insisted on audible prayers at the 50-yard line with students,’ because he believed that the prayers ‘are how he helps these kids be better people,’” reports Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog. “Kennedy’s actions, Katskee continued, put pressure on players to join the prayers, ‘divided the coaching staff, sparked vitriol against school officials, and led to the field being stormed and students getting knocked down.’”

Justices Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh seemed unconvinced that the school was driven by its concerns for safety in suspending and firing Kennedy. Both justices mused whether the district was instead trying to weasel its way out of a thorny religious issue.

Justice Neil Gorsuch asked Katskee what the high court should do “if they believe the school district and the courts below should have focused on concerns about coercion, rather than endorsing religion.” Katskee recommended kicking the case back down to the 9th Circuit for a second look. But the coach’s attorney pushed back that “When both of the lower courts have already agreed with Kennedy that the school district took action against him only out of a desire to avoid endorsing religion, ‘that is not something that should stand.’”

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It’s easy to guess that the conservative-leaning Court could rule favorably for Kennedy, and Howe reports that “a majority of the Supreme Court appeared sympathetic” to Kennedy. The Court will most likely release its ruling on this case at the end of its term this June. We’ll be watching to see what happens.

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