After losing his job for praying on the area, ex-high school football coach brings case to Supreme Court

Washington — It was after watching the sports activities movie “Facing the Giants” that Joseph Kennedy, then a brand new coach for the Bremerton High School football workforce in Washington state, was impressed to pray.

And so, after teaching his first sport for the Bremerton Knights in August 2008, Kennedy walked to the 50-yard-line, “on the battlefield,” the retired U.S. Marine says, and took a knee to provide a prayer of gratitude. 

It started with the coach, alone, briefly thanking God after the closing whistle for protecting the gamers secure, for honest play and for spirited competitors. But quickly sufficient, the variety of gamers gathering alongside Kennedy after video games grew to embody a majority of the workforce, although participation diverse. At least one father or mother said his son felt “compelled to take part” out of worry he would lose out on taking part in time.

And quickly sufficient, the prayers by Kennedy, himself a graduate of Bremerton High School, developed into motivational speeches with non secular references.

Praying Football Coach
Joe Kennedy, a former assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington, poses for a photograph March 9, 2022, at the school’s football area. 

Ted S. Warren / AP


For seven years, Kennedy continued his follow of praying on the area with no points. But in September 2015, the Bremerton School District discovered what he was doing when an opposing workforce’s coach informed Bremerton High School’s principal that Kennedy requested his gamers to be a part of him for the post-game prayer, saying he “thought it was fairly cool” the district would permit such exercise, in accordance to court records.

That commentary by the opposing coach served as the catalyst for a yearslong battle between Kennedy and the school district, the venue for which shifted from the gridiron to the courts when the coach misplaced his job after defying directives to finish his follow of praying on the area.

Kennedy argued he was partaking in constitutionally protected non secular expression, and on Monday, the United States Supreme Court will weigh his bid to get his teaching job again and be allowed to pray at midfield after video games.

“It appears so easy to me: It’s a man taking a knee by himself on the 50-yard-line, which to me would not appear to be it wants a rocket scientist or a Supreme Court justice to determine,” he informed CBS News. “I did not need to trigger any waves, and the factor I needed to do was coach football and thank God after the sport.”

But for defenders of the school district, Kennedy was appearing as an agent of the state who, as a public school worker, violated the non secular freedom of scholars who felt stress to pray-to-play.

“When a coach makes use of the energy of his job to be in a spot and have entry to college students at a time after they’re anticipated to encircle him and are available to him, that is an abuse of that energy and a violation of the Constitution,” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, informed CBS News’ Jan Crawford. “Religious freedom shouldn’t be the proper to impose your faith on others. We all want to have it, in order that’s why the free train and institution clause work collectively to shield non secular freedom for all of us.”

“Giving up shouldn’t be one thing that is in my blood”

After the Bremerton School District discovered of Kennedy’s post-game follow of praying at midfield in September 2015, it launched an investigation into whether or not he was complying with the school board’s coverage on religious-related actions and practices. 

While acknowledging that Kennedy had “not actively inspired, or required, participation” in both a pre-game prayer in the locker room or his “inspirational speak at midfield” after video games,” the district stated in a letter dated September 17, 2015, that the actions probably would violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and expose the district to “important danger of legal responsibility.”

“Bremerton High School legally dangers endorsing or favoring one set of spiritual views over others and that is not what the Constitution guarantees,” Laser stated. “Religious freedom, these 16 phrases of our First Amendment of our Constitution are a protect that protects non secular freedom for all of us, not simply non secular freedom for a few of us.”

The district informed Kennedy that his talks with college students should stay fully secular, and future non secular exercise he engages in, together with prayer, should not intervene with his job duties, should be separate from any scholar exercise and will not have participation from the college students. 

In compliance with the district’s request, Kennedy briefly stopped praying on the area after video games. But one month later, in mid-October 2015, he informed the district via an legal professional that he would resume saying a post-game prayer at the 50-yard-line after requesting a spiritual lodging below Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the foundation of faith.

“No cheap observer may conclude {that a} football coach who waits till the sport is over and the gamers have left the area after which walks to mid-field to say a brief, personal, private prayer is talking on behalf of the state,” his lawyer stated in a letter to the Bremerton School District. “Quite the reverse, Coach Kennedy is engaged in personal non secular expression upon which the state could not infringe.”

And so, after the closing whistle at Bremerton’s homecoming sport on October 16, 2015, Kennedy shook fingers with the opposing workforce, waited till gamers had been singing their combat track, after which knelt at the 50-yard-line, bowed his head, and, joined by gamers from each groups, members of the media and the public, prayed.

He did so once more for the subsequent two video games, after which the district placed Kennedy on paid administrative leave from his place as an assistant coach for violating its directives. During a subsequent analysis of Kennedy’s efficiency, Bremerton’s athletic director recommended he not be rehired for the subsequent season, citing a failure to observe district coverage and failure to supervise student-athletes after video games. 

Kennedy selected not to reapply for his teaching place at Bremerton High School, and, in August 2016, filed suit in opposition to the Bremerton School District in federal district courtroom in Tacoma, Washington, arguing it violated his constitutional rights to free speech and free train.

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

U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton ruled against Kennedy, discovering that “whereas public colleges shouldn’t have unfettered discretion to limit an worker’s non secular speech, they do have the capability to stop a coach from praying at the middle of the football area instantly after video games.” 

Kennedy appealed to the ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the district courtroom’s ruling. He then turned to the Supreme Court, and in 2019, the excessive courtroom declined to hear his case.

In an announcement from Justice Samuel Alito and joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, the 4 justices stated it was untimely for the Supreme Court to hear Kennedy’s case at the moment, however warned the ninth Circuit’s “understanding of the free speech rights of public school lecturers is troubling and will justify assessment in the future.”

“What is maybe most troubling about the ninth Circuit’s opinion is language that may be understood to imply {that a} coach’s obligation to function a great function mannequin requires the coach to chorus from any manifestation of spiritual religion — even when the coach is plainly not on obligation,” Alito wrote.

After extra proceedings, Kennedy once more suffered losses in the decrease courts. A 3-judge panel of judges on the ninth Circuit dominated in March 2021 that the school district’s efforts to stop Kennedy from praying didn’t violate his constitutional rights, and his postgame speech on the area was speech as a authorities worker.

“At concern on this case shouldn’t be, as Kennedy makes an attempt to gloss it, a private and personal train of religion,” Judge Milan Smith Jr. wrote for the unanimous panel. “At concern was — in each sense of the phrase — an illustration, and, as a result of Kennedy demanded that it happen instantly after the closing whistle, it was an illustration essentially directed at college students and the attending public.”

The full ninth Circuit declined to re-hear the case, and Kennedy once more appealed the resolution to the Supreme Court in September. The excessive courtroom agreed in January to take up the dispute.

“I used to be a Marine for 20 years. Supporting and defending the Constitution means loads to me. Giving up shouldn’t be one thing that is in my blood, it isn’t in my nature,” Kennedy stated of his prolonged authorized combat to get his job again. ” I can have a look at myself in the mirror, have a look at my workforce over the years, and maintain my head up excessive and look them in the eyes and say hey, I fought the good combat, I did not hand over.”

Kennedy’s courtroom battle with the school district will come earlier than a Supreme Court that has shifted additional rightward since 2019, when the justices first spurned his request to hear his case. Now with a 6-3 conservative majority, the excessive courtroom has in current phrases been extra sympathetic to non secular rights.

“The state doesn’t personal each ounce of your free expression. They cannot censor you from every part you do,” Jeremy Dys, particular counsel for First Liberty, which is representing Kennedy, informed CBS News. “The Establishment Clause doesn’t imply you will need to censor and stamp out any non secular demonstration.”

Senators Delay Vote On Bill To Strip Russia's Trade Status
Cherry blossoms close to the Supreme Court on Monday, March 28, 2022.

Bloomberg


“Courageous to some and offensive to others”

In filings with the Supreme Court, legal professionals for the district argue it acted inside its authority to regulate Kennedy’s “very public speech” and declare he “tells a breathless story of authoritarian authorities forbidding personal non secular expression, insisting that until the courtroom applies his most popular authorized check, non secular follow will likely be quashed throughout the nation.”

Under the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, the school district’s curiosity in shielding college students from non secular coercion and stopping workers from “commandeering authorities occasions” outweighs Kennedy’s curiosity in praying with college students, the district argued.

Laser famous that Kennedy was not precluded from praying on his personal, even when he was thought of “on obligation.” But it was the place and time at which he selected to have interaction in the follow that left college students feeling pressured to be a part of.

“If this coach had been the truth is doing what he says he was doing, which is praying in a personal and solitary method, we would not be right here, as a result of that is positive. You do not have to go away that behind once you change into a public official,” she stated. “But non secular freedom shouldn’t be the proper to use the energy of the state to favor one set of spiritual beliefs over others, to impose one set of spiritual beliefs on public school college students.”

The dispute between Kennedy and the Bremerton School District has attracted a slew of friend-of-the-court briefs, together with from present and former National Football League gamers, and former collegiate athletes and coaches.

In one brief filed in help of Kennedy on behalf of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, Chicago Bears quarterback Nick Foles and former NFL quarterback Drew Stanton, amongst others, the present and former gamers invoked Colin Kaepernick — although at first not by identify — kneeling throughout the nationwide anthem to protest racial injustice.

“That follow, like Kennedy’s prayers, is controversial — brave to some and offensive to others,” they argued. “But if Joe Kennedy had taken a knee to protest racial injustice, the district nearly actually wouldn’t have argued that his speech was by some means the state’s. Rather, there would have been no query that it was protected personal speech.”

As the gamers “can attest from their expertise in any respect ranges of sports activities— excessive school, school, and professional —  audiences perceive symbolic acts of speech on the area to replicate the views of the particular person athletes and coaches who have interaction in them, whether or not they’re Colin Kaepernick, Tim Tebow, Shaquille O’Neal, or Joe Kennedy. The evaluation doesn’t change as a result of the speech is non secular relatively than political,” they informed the Supreme Court.

Dys, too, stated that the First Amendment protects the rights of each Kaepernick and Kennedy to take a knee, whether or not in an expression of free speech or free train.

“One is speech and one is free train, however they’re inside a number of phrases of one another,” he stated. “They are each protected by the First Amendment, and so they’re allowed to have that proper.”

But a bunch of former skilled football gamers and collegiate athletes in help of the school district warned the relationship between a coach and athlete in excessive school athletics is exclusive, as it’s “extremely prone to being coercive,” and needs to be thought of by the Supreme Court because it weighs the case.

“The report right here demonstrates that Mr. Kennedy’s actions had the propensity to, and did, lead gamers to really feel compelled to take part in Mr. Kennedy’s expressions of religion even when they might relatively not have carried out so,” the former athletes, together with former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and former NFL working again Obafemi Ayanbadejo.

A call from the Supreme Court is anticipated by the finish of June.

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