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After a former high school football coach loses his job praying on the field, he will take the case to the Supreme Court

Washington – Joseph Kennedy, then the new coach of the Bremerton High School in Washington state, was inspired to pray after watching the sports movie “Facing the Giants”.

So after coaching his first game for the Bremerton Knights in August 2008, Kennedy walked to the 50-yard line, “on the battlefield,” says the former US Marine, and knelt down to say a prayer of gratitude.

It started when the coach himself, after the final whistle, briefly thanked God for ensuring the safety of the players, for the fair play and for the spirited competition. But soon the number of players gathered next to Kennedy after the games grew to most of the team, although attendance varied. At least one parent said his son felt “forced to participate” for fear of losing play time.

And soon the prayers of Kennedy, a high school graduate in Bremerton, turned into motivational speeches with religious references.

Joe Kennedy, a former assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington, poses for a photo on March 9, 2022 on a school football field. Ted S. Warren / AP

For seven years, Kennedy continued his practice of prayer in the field without any problems. But in September 2015, the Bremerton School District learned what he was doing when an opponent’s team coach told the Bremerton High School principal that Kennedy had asked his players to join him in a post-match prayer, saying that “he thought it was quite cool ”district. according to court records, would allow such activity.

This observation of the opponent’s coach served as a catalyst for the age-old battle between Kennedy and the school district, whose venue moved from the grate to the courts when the coach lost his job after defying orders to end his practice of prayer on the field. .

Kennedy argued that he was engaging in a constitutionally protected religious speech, and on Monday the United States Supreme Court will consider his offer to get his coaching job back so he can pray in the middle of the field after the matches.

“I find it so simple: He’s a guy who knelt on a 50-yard line, which I don’t think he needs a rocket scientist or a Supreme Court judge,” he told CBS. News. “I didn’t want to make any waves and the thing I wanted to do was train football and thank God after the match.”

But for school district defenders, Kennedy acted as a prosecutor who, as a public school employee, violated the religious freedom of students who felt pressured to pray for the game.

“When a coach uses the power of his job to be in place and have access to students at a time when they are expected to surround him and come to him, it is an abuse of power and a violation of the constitution,” Rachel Laser, president and general manager. Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Jan Crawford told CBS News. “Religious freedom is not a right to impose one’s religion on others. We all need it, so the free exercise and establishment clauses work together to protect religious freedom for all of us.”

“Giving up is not something I have in my blood”

After learning about Kennedy’s post-match prayer practice in the middle of the playground in September 2015, Bremerton School District began investigating whether it adhered to the school board’s policies regarding religious activities and practices.

While acknowledging that Kennedy “did not actively support or solicit participation” in the pre-match prayer in the locker room or in his “inspirational mid-range speech” after the matches, the district said in a letter dated September 17, 2015 the first amendment and exposed the district to a “significant liability risk”.

“Bremerton High School is legally at risk of supporting or favoring one set of religious views over others, and that’s not what the constitution promises,” Laser said. “Religious freedom, those 16 words of our First Amendment, is a shield that protects the religious freedom of all of us, not just the religious freedom of some of us.”

The district told Kennedy that his conversations with students must remain entirely secular and that the future religious activity he will conduct, including prayer, must not interfere with his work duties, must be separate from any student activity, and may not involve students.

At the district’s request, Kennedy temporarily stopped praying on the field after the matches. But a month later, in mid-October 2015, the county, through a lawyer, said it would continue prayer after the 50-yard match after applying for religious accommodation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion.

“No reasonable observer could conclude that a football coach who waits until the match is over and the players leave the field, and then goes to the center of the field to say a short, private, personal prayer, speaks on behalf of the state,” his lawyer said in letters to the Bremerton school district. “On the contrary, Coach Kennedy is dealing with a private religious speech that the state must not violate.”

So after the final whistle at the Bremerton home game on October 16, 2015, Kennedy shook hands with his opponent’s team, waited for the players to sing their battle song, and then knelt at the 50-yard mark, bowing his head and joined by both players. members of the media and the public prayed.

He did so again for two more games, after which the district placed Kennedy on paid administrative leave as an assistant coach for violating her guidelines. During a follow-up evaluation of Kennedy’s performance, Bremerton’s athletic director advised that he not be re-engaged for next season, citing non-compliance with district policies and the inability to oversee student-athletes after matches.

Kennedy decided not to run for his coaching position again at Bremerton High School and in August 2016 filed a lawsuit against the Bremerton School District in the Federal District Court in Tacoma, Washington, violating his constitutional rights to freedom of speech and exercise.

Former Bermerton High School coach Joseph Kennedy (First Liberty Institute)

U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton ruled against Kennedy and found that “while public schools do not have unlimited freedom to restrict an employee’s religious language, they have the ability to prevent a coach from praying in the middle of a football field immediately after matches.”

Kennedy appealed to the 9th U.S. District Court, which upheld the district court’s decision. He then turned to the Supreme Court, and in 2019 the High Court refused to hear his case.

In a statement by Judge Samuel Alita, joined by Judges Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, the four judges said it was premature for the Supreme Court to hear Kennedy’s case at the time, but warned District 9 of “Understanding Freedom of Speech.” the rights of public school teachers are worrying and may justify a review in the future. “

“What is perhaps most troubling about the 9th Circuit’s view is the language, which can be understood as requiring the coach’s role as a role model for the coach to refrain from any expression of religious belief – even if the coach is clearly not on. duty, “Alito wrote.

After further proceedings, Kennedy again suffered losses in the lower courts. A three-member jury of the 9th District ruled in March 2021 that the school district’s efforts to prevent Kennedy from praying did not violate his constitutional rights, and his post-match speech on the field was a government employee’s.

“This is not a personal and private exercise of faith, as Kennedy is trying to outline,” Judge Milan Smith Jr. wrote to the unanimous jury. “It was – in every sense of the word – a demonstration, and because Kennedy demanded that it take place immediately after the final whistle, it was necessarily aimed at the students and the public present.”

The entire 9th District refused to hear the case again, and Kennedy appealed again to the Supreme Court in September. The High Court agreed in January to initiate the dispute.

“I’ve been a Marine for 20 years. Supporting and defending the constitution means a lot to me. Giving up is not something I have in my blood, I don’t have it in nature,” Kennedy said of his lengthy legal struggle to get his job back. “I can look at myself in the mirror, look at my team over the years, raise my head and look them in the eye and say hey, I fought a good fight, I didn’t give up.”

Kennedy’s court battle with the school district comes before the Supreme Court, which has moved further since 2019, when judges first rejected his request to hear his case. Now with a conservative 6-3 majority, the Supreme Court has recently been more in favor of religious rights.

“The state doesn’t own every ounce of your free speech. They can’t censor you about everything you do,” said Jeremy Dys, First Liberty’s special adviser, who represents Kennedy. “The provisions of the establishment do not mean that you must censor and suppress any religious demonstration.”

Cherry blossoms near the Supreme Court on Monday, March 28, 2022. Bloomberg

“Brave to someone and offensive to someone”

In the Supreme Court’s submissions, the district lawyers claim that he acted within the scope of his authority to regulate Kennedy’s “very public speech” …