The case of a high-school football coach, a Christian, who knelt at the 50-yard-line after each game, win or lose, to thank God was argued Monday before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Kelly Shackelford, president of First Liberty Institute, said, “Banning a coach from praying, just because he can be seen by the public, is wrong and violates the Constitution. No American should be forced to choose between their faith and the job they love. We are hopeful the court will allow Coach Kennedy to once again do what he promised God he would do – kneel at the 50-yard-line after a game in which he coaches to say a quiet, personal prayer of thanks.”
Joe Kennedy lost his job as a football coach in Bremerton, Washington, when the school demanded he relinquish his religious rights and stop praying after games.
The New York Times posted an opinion piece that said the court’s majority “seemed to be searching on Monday for a narrow way to rule in favor of a former high-school football coach who lost his job for praying at the 50-yard line after his team’s games.”
But it described the case as “complicated by factual disputes” over the coach’s actions and “the shifting rationales offered by the school district … for disciplining him.”
Paul Clement argued on behalf of Kennedy that his client wanted only to offer a brief, silent prayer of thanks after the team’s games.
But a lawyer for the district, Richard Katskee, charged that the school had the right to demand employees not pray “if students were likely to feel coerced into participating,” something Kennedy has stated he avoided.
Several justices pointed out that the district earlier had claimed that the prayers would present the perception that the school was endorsing religion.
The opinion piece explained, “Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked whether Mr. Kennedy could have prayed aloud while standing with his arms outstretched. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked whether Mr. Kennedy would have been disciplined for protesting the invasion of Ukraine, climate change or racial injustice.”
That there were such questions wasn’t a surprise, since Justices Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas earlier had issued a statement, when the high court declined to intervene several years ago, that the issue of free speech rights in a lower court’s ruling was troublesome.
At the time, the case was coming from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the four judges said, “The Ninth Circuit’s understanding of the free speech rights of public-school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future. What is perhaps most troubling about the Ninth Circuit’s opinion, is language that can be understood to mean 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.”
That court, however, ruled repeatedly against Kennedy, giving school officials permission to control his prayers.
That lower court ruling, written by Judge Milan D. Smith Jr., claimed Kennedy “led the team in prayer in the locker room before each game, and some players began to join him for his postgame prayer, too, where his practice ultimately evolved to include full-blown religious speeches to, and prayers with, players from both teams after the game, conducted while the players were still on the field and while fans remained in the stands.”
However, among the 11 judges who disagreed with Smith was Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, who pointed out, “It is axiomatic that teachers do not ‘shed’ their First Amendment protections ‘at the schoolhouse gate.’ Yet the opinion in this case obliterates such constitutional protections by announcing a new rule that any speech by a public-school teacher or coach, while on the clock and in earshot of others, is subject to plenary control by the government.”
The Washington Examiner explained the case began in 2015 when the district suddenly made an issue of the coach’s brief – sometimes only a few seconds long – prayers after games. They apparently had been going on for several years without issue.
In 2019 the high court declined to intervene, concluding it was for the lower courts to resolve, but shortly after a lack of resolution did, in fact, convince the Supreme Court to accept the case.
The school district argued that Kennedy’s prayers “interfered” with the students’ own religious freedoms.
One of the leftists on the bench, Sonia Sotomayor, demanded to know, “Why can’t an employer tell an employee what they’re permitted to do, personal or otherwise?”
Kennedy previously has confirmed that he had been praying the brief prayers for years, and some students asked him if they could join him. His response was, “This is America — of course you could join.”
The decision on the case could significantly impact school censorship of teacher statements in a number of ways, and is expected to be announced sometime this summer.
An analysis by Liberty Counsel, which often works on religious speech cases, said, “it appears the justices were skeptical of the school district’s claim that Coach Kennedy’s speech was government speech.”
“Today, the high court focused on two questions: (1) Whether a public school employee who says a brief, quiet prayer by himself while at school and visible to students is engaged in government speech that lacks any First Amendment protection; and (2) whether, assuming that such religious expression is private and protected by the free speech and free exercise clauses, the establishment clause nevertheless compels public schools to prohibit it,” the organization explained.
“A majority of justices appeared to lean in favor of Coach Kennedy. The attorney for Bremerton High School had a difficult time responding to Justice Gorsuch’s question about whether a coach doing the sign of the cross was government speech which the district could restrict. Justice Thomas and others pressed the question of whether the district would censor a person kneeling for non-religious reasons,” the organization explained.
Liberty Counsel Chairman Mat Staver said, “This case is an opportunity for the high court to affirm that every American has the right to engaged in individual religious expression without fear of punishment.”
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